Called to serve: Advice from the nonprofit trenches

Years ago when local attorney Doug Bishop went to the YMCA to enroll his young son in soccer, he had no idea that he was also beginning a long and varied career in public service. As it turned out, Bishop signed two papers at the registration table that day. One to put his son on the team and one to make himself the coach.

"They were looking for players but they really needed coaches, too. I said, 'Well, I don't know anything about soccer, but sure, I'll give coaching a try.'" Bishop went on to coach for six more years and its that kind of willingness to try new things and fill a leadership void that has made him a valuable presence in the area's nonprofit community.

Since putting down his signatures at the soccer sign up, Bishop has served on the board of directors for the YMCA, the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, Trojan Athletic Boosters, the Suffolk University Alumni Association, Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) Board of Trustees, and acts as area coordinator for the U.S. Naval Academy admissions office. For the Y, the Chamber, and the Boosters, Bishop even went on to serve as President.

"One of the main things I've gotten out of serving with these organizations is feeling that I'm giving something back to the community," said Bishop. "Initially I got involved with the Y, coaching youth soccer because my oldest son needed coaching, but it's turned into much more than that. The opportunity to meet a lot of other people that I don't normally run across in my business, and the opportunity to observe management and leadership skills in action. That has impacted me personally, but professionally, too."

For those interested in serving on area nonprofit boards, Bishop suggested that people first get to know the organization by becoming a member, volunteering at an event, or serving on a committee. He also said the Chamber's Leadership Grand Traverse program gives a great overview of area nonprofits and provides a good starting place for service.

Nick Edson, who works for Cherryland Electric in the marketing department, volunteers on the Rotary's Board of Directors for their noon club, is a big brother with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, serves with Bishop on the YMCA Board, and assists with NMC's golf scholarship program. He describes his nonprofit Board service this way: "It's turned me from a 'me' person into a 'we' person."

At the same time, he said that a related benefit to the good feeling Board volunteers get for helping community organizations is networking. Board members can't help but make new contacts if they are effective in their roles and those contacts can become long-time professional colleagues as well.

"It definitely adds to your business," Edson said, though added that was not the reason he began serving. "You build a trust. People that you serve with see that you deliver what you promise. Then when it comes to a business decision, people are apt to know that you're a person they can work with."

Edson advised prospective new board members to start small, with just one organization, and build their service career from there. Choose an organization that works in an area they're passionate about, for example youth, education, or the environment.

And, don't forget the fun potential. Serving on Boards can give you a purpose, teach you new skills, help you network, but if the atmosphere is right, it can also be a lot of fun.

"The rewards of working with and being a part of a group with a common passion are many, not least of which is having a mutually interested circle that sometimes evolves into a social circle, where the thing you love is also the thing you party about," said Anne Marie Oomen, president of Michigan Writers, a nonprofit group that advocates for creative writers by hosting workshops, publishing a chapbook series and a literary magazine, Dunes Review. "Celebrating, bragging, building confidence, helping make connections, all that yummy human interaction around a common theme."

In her professional life, Oomen is an award-winning author, poet and playwright and teaches at the Interlochen Arts Academy. In her nonprofit life, she's served on Old Town Playhouse's artistic board of directors, the Glen Arbor Arts Association and now on Michigan Writers. Her advice to those seeking board membership is to serve on a board that is comprised of people whose company you enjoy.

"Choose carefully your responsibility according to your interests and skills," she said. "It really helps if you do your task with people you like because you won't get paid in any other way. And, it's a given that you have to have a passion for the group's mission." BN