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Opinion: Lawyers lead by filling nonprofit board seats

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The legal profession gets a bad rap sometimes, and one of the best ways to overcome that negative perception is when lawyers serve on nonprofit boards in the community. More importantly, lawyers’ participation in the boardroom strengthens the organization and helps it achieve its objectives in a more efficient, thoughtful manner.

As attorneys, we are trained to use critical-thinking skills to solve complex problems. We can logically and sensibly evaluate competing arguments and, perhaps most critically in this realm, we are able to guide the nonprofit organization on how its programming is (or is not) tied to its mission statement, bylaws and other governing documents. Without this perspective and this grounding, chaos and frustration may run rampant in the boardroom. That’s because the work of nonprofits is hard, and it’s complex. There is no single right answer, and attorneys (hopefully leaving their egos at the door) can be a helpful tool to encourage civil, robust discussion and guide policy decisions for the organization.

Consider some of these issues that routinely come up for nonprofits:

  • Has the organization complied with its tax obligations, i.e., the filing of a Form 990?
  • Does the organization have sufficient insurance coverage to manage risk?
  • Are there controls in place to ensure that funds are spent in the way they are intended?
  • Are there conflicts of interest that need to be considered and navigated?
  • Is the organization the best suited to address a particular community need, or would it make more sense for another organization to handle the issue?
  • How does the organization manage its social media presence and ensure appropriate content is being shared online?
  • What should the organization do if the board becomes aware of an employment discrimination or retaliation claim by a staff member?
  • Has the organization considered the need for trademark, copyright or other intellectual property protections?

All of these illustrate the value of having an attorney on a nonprofit organization’s board. With that, I want to recognize some of the attorneys in our area who are leading by example.

Sarah Kerner, my colleague and assistant general counsel at accounting firm FORVIS LLP, serves on the board of the Ozarks Literacy Council, a tremendous organization committed to promoting literacy in our community. I have no doubt that her service and involvement are making a meaningful difference in other people’s lives, particularly when she takes time out of her day to participate in the organization’s Reading Resource Program once a month throughout the school year at Springfield Public Schools with some of the most at-risk student populations.

Debbie Shantz Hart – owner of Housing Plus LLC, the first female lawyer at Husch Blackwell LLP and once an attorney to the late iconic developer John Q. Hammons – serves on the boards for the Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc. and Care to Learn, two very important nonprofits in our community. With her commitment to solving the affordable-housing crisis and years of experience in the Springfield business and legal communities, it’s hard to imagine anyone more well-suited for those boards.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to volunteer at Ozarks Food Harvest Inc., and I remember being amazed by the scale of the operations. Tamara Conn, the general counsel for O’Reilly Automotive Inc., now serves on the board, undoubtedly sharing her insights, warmth and problem-solving skills to strengthen the organization and to carry out its mission.

These individuals are just a few examples of local attorneys serving and strengthening nonprofit boards in the area. I want to say thank you to each of those attorneys – in the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association and beyond – who graciously share their time and skill sets with nonprofits. I would encourage other local attorneys to find a cause they’re passionate about and become involved in some form or fashion.

Jarica Oeltjen is deputy general counsel at FORVIS LLP and president of the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association. She can be reached at jarica.oeltjen@forvis.com.

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