Students Learn About Nonprofit Board Service

Like many students at the Law School, Erin Steigerwald, ’16, wants to work in a law firm someday while also putting her talents to use for a nonprofit organization. Steigerwald, who already has philanthropic experience, heard a lot of advice on how to make that hope a reality at a Wednesday lunch talk.

A panel of four lawyers – three of them alumni – presented “Giving Back While Growing Your Career: The How and Why of Nonprofit Board Service.” They were: Richard L. Sevcik, ’85, a partner at K&L Gates; Thomas A. Cole, ’75, partner at Sidley Austin and lecturer in law; Jesse H. Ruiz, ’95, a partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath; and Courtney VanLonkhuyzen, lead procurement counsel of Motorola Mobility and executive director of the Motorola Mobility Foundation.

All the panelists have extensive experience on nonprofit boards and a lot of advice for future philanthropy-minded lawyers: Research the organization’s finances, leadership, and strategic plan before signing on. Make sure your employer supports your efforts. Find out up front what is expected from you in terms of time and money. If you’re going to do it, do it with passion.  

The lawyers also gave students many reasons to do nonprofit board work, beyond the obvious: it’s the right thing to do.

“A lot of nonprofits and civic organizations can really use the help,” Cole said. “We are exquisitely trained at this Law School…to have a perspective on how things should be done.”

Additionally, lawyers, especially new ones, get invaluable experience and networking opportunities. Sometimes, lawyers take on tasks for nonprofits that they wouldn’t get to do at their firms, because it’s not their practice area, said VanLonkhuyzen, who is on the board of directors of the Chicago Foundation for Women. And sometimes nonprofit work leads to other, sometimes paid, opportunities. For example, Ruiz said, he volunteers on the board for the Chicago Legal Clinic, where he met his current colleagues on the board of directors of Commonwealth Edison (ComEd).

Ruiz is also vice president of the Chicago Board of Education, a commissioner on the U.S. Department of Education Equity and Excellence Commission, and chairman of the Council on Re-enrolling Students Who Dropped Out of School. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Chicago Community Trust. He serves on several boards of directors, including the Chicago Bar Foundation, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the National Museum of Mexican Art.

“There is a duty,” Ruiz said, to do volunteer work. “If we go to this law school, we’ve been blessed. You’ve been given a great gift, and you’ve got to do something with that gift.”

Law, Cole said, should be more than a business; it should be a profession. Cole, who recently ended a 15-year stint as chair of his firm’s executive committee, is on the board of trustees of the University of Chicago and is chairman emeritus of the board of trustees of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare. He is also director of World Sport Chicago and a member of the Economic Club of Chicago, the Commercial Club of Chicago, and the Lawyers Club of Chicago.

If you’re truly engaged with your nonprofit work, Cole said, “it can be a very satisfying aspect of your daily life.”

Sevcik agreed with Cole, that passion is key. He told the students to volunteer for organization whose mission and purposes they find interesting. “If you are not (feeling that), move on.” Sevcik, who also served as moderator, has served on the board of trustees and planned giving advisory councils for both the Ravinia Festival Association and the Lincoln Park Zoological Society, and is active in Catholic Charities, as well as several other organizations.

Steigerwald, the student, is a professional trumpet player who already serves on the Vh1 Save the Music Foundation Young Benefactors Board. She wants to work in arts or entertainment law after school, and also serve on a board.

“This was a great opportunity to hear from people who have done this successfully,” she said. “I thought it was really useful. It’s not that common to hear about that aspect of attorney’s lives.”

The program, organized by the Office of the Dean of Students, is part of the Keystone Professionalism and Leadership Program.