Vernetta Walker, J.D., brings a wealth of experience with the law and how it is used in nonprofit governance to Columbia's Nonprofit Management program. In her current position as the chief governance officer and vice president of programs at BoardSource, Walker is charged with supporting nonprofit organizations across the country. She teaches Nonprofit Governance, and she answered some questions about her experience by email:
What do you want students to get excited about with Nonprofit Management?
I want students in the nonprofit management program to get excited about contributing exceptional leadership to the sector – whether they are starting nonprofits, running nonprofits, or volunteering with nonprofits. Nonprofit organizations play a critical role in America and other countries, providing a broad range of services that might not otherwise be available. It’s in our best interest to ensure a pipeline of individuals who have not only bright and innovative ideas, but also the substantive foundation to figure out how to get the job done.
In 2016, what case involving a nonprofit best exemplifies the effectiveness of board governance?
This is an interesting question, as the cases I see often spotlight governance scandals. On a positive note, however, a story this past spring captured my attention. Media broke the news of a collaborative effort of 10 foundations, to ensure safe drinking water in Detroit, MI, and to support health care, education, and community engagement. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which is Flint based, led the effort with a commitment of $50 million this year and $100 million over the next five years. Support wasn’t limited to local players, though. Ford Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation of NY (among others) all joined in to provide a timely philanthropic response and the resources needed to address systemic issues and seek long-term solutions. That takes leadership, commitment to the greater good, and boards that are willing to step up and take action.
How does your experience in law shape your work as chief governance officer and vice president of programs at BoardSource?
My legal background provides a solid framework for me to understand corporate entities and the laws and regulations pertaining to nonprofit organizations. As chief governance officer, I think there is an expectation that I should be able to speak authoritatively about actions of governing boards that can jeopardize their organizations, lead to personally liability, or even loss of tax-exempt status.
Can you tell me more about the challenges and achievements of The Young, Black and Giving Back Institute, where you're a co-chair?
The mission of the YBGB is to equip, inspire, and empower young black professionals, influencers, social entrepreneurs, and activists to be able to effectively invest in changing their communities through civic leadership and philanthropy. As a start-up, there are the usual challenges of setting strategic direction, balancing emerging opportunities with capacity (it’s an all-volunteer run organization), and deciding how to best deliver on the promise of the mission. We were just starting to figure out some of these issues and challenges when Ebonie Johnson Cooper, the founder, announced that she had another “calling” and would be starting seminary school. In a heartfelt meeting with the board, there was unanimous agreement that YBGB needed to continue in some form. Board members came through in a big way, lining up a fiscal agent and programming partners. The key though, was finding an interim president to provide the management support needed while Ebonie is on sabbatical. Emerald Stewart, who had been volunteering all along, stepped up to the plate.
I recently had breakfast with Emerald and she expressed why she’s willing to fill the role, stating that YBGB is the only organization that provided “the information I wanted to receive [for example, information about the Black wealth gap and giving], the way I wanted to receive it, with the people I feel need to hear the information.” The summits – though small – have been a success and continue to generate buzz. With that I knew I too wanted to help keep this organization going and honestly feel the best is yet to come.