Photo by Angela Conners
For Jessica Dolan, the family business is one that is focused on public service through non-profit organizations. Here, FW: Chicago taps into her years of experience working with and serving on non-profit boards to learn more about why non-profits need more women in leadership positions and why you should consider following in her footsteps.
Many of us have spent some time thinking about how we can give back and make the world a better place in our own unique way. Some, like Chicagoan Jessica Dolan, have made it a satisfying career. A lawyer with a JD from DePaul University College of Law, Dolan grew up with non-profit work woven into the fabric of her childhood, with both her mother and step- father working in non-profit development. She recalls listening to stories about their days over dinner as a child: “They spoke each other’s language—one of working with volunteers, limited resources, and inspiring missions. It was a sort of baptism in information for me. I grew up immersed in that language.”
In what now seems like an act of fate, she says she “sort of fell into” her profession, after what was meant to be a temporary job with a domestic violence agency named Sarah’s Inn, became permanent. Dolan was eventually named the Director of Development.
Fast forward ten years, and Dolan has crafted quite the career for herself in non-profit development, calling herself a “fundraising generalist.” Currently the vice president of development for the USO of Illinois, Dolan is instrumental in helping the organization serve the needs of Illinois’ military troops and their families. Dolan says that the USO of Illinois has a large,
active board, one that is kept busy serving the needs of more than 330,000 Active Duty
National Guard and Reserve troops and their families across the state. In addition, Dolan is also on the board of Growing Home, Inc., a farm-based job skills training program headquartered in the Englewood neighborhood on the Southside of the city. With a professional background focused on non-profit board development. Dolan is the ideal source for a deeper look into the role of non-profit boards and why women should consider a spot on a Board of Directors.
What is the value that a Board member brings to a non-profit organization? According to Dolan, a board is in place to “provide leadership, insight, guidance and support. But one of the most important responsibilities of a board is fundraising and bringing resources to the organization.” Non-profits receive preferred tax status from the government, and the board is tasked with making
sure that the organization maintains that favorable tax treatment by staying true to its mission of public service. It is up to the board to establish what the non-profit’s mission will be and to create a plan to accomplish its goals. Without these goals and a strict adherence to its priorities, a non-profit can easily run off course.
When asked why women should consider joining a non-profit board, Dolan has a quick reply: “Joining a board is a way to shape your world.” She sees women as innate networkers and creatives, with a unique talent for building communities around them
when they find a cause they are passionate about. It is no surprise that after ten years of “dragging friends to events,” Dolan has influenced some in her own circle to get more involved in non-profit work. One also can see how a dynamic personality like Dolan’s can have a solid impact on board members in the organizations she has worked for. What does she think her impact has been on these board members? “I’d like to think that I have helped them engage more. I have helped them become more comfortable with tapping into their own networks and resources. Sometimes, board members do not always know how to engage their networks.” Being present and engaged is the formula for success on a non-profit board, says Dolan. She notes that the board members who are the most satisfied with their work are the ones who are the most involved.
Discussing why women should join a non-profit board, Dolan thinks that women bring a specific skill set to a Board of Directors—namely empathy and diplomacy. She says, “Women are able to build bridges and bring a consensus for all parties. Women can also influence other women.” During her career, Dolan also has observed that many non-profits tend to have more women on staff. While generalities of any sort can be perilous, it seems the way most women are socialized leaves them with much to bring to the table when it comes to non-profit boards or business as a whole. Dolan says, “Women respond to women. Getting more female leaders on a board ensures a new avenue of outreach to a donor base that may not feel heard or respected by male leaders.” She also points out that women must be willing to be vocal with their insights.
If you are feeling inspired and are interested in the possibility of joining the board of a non-profit organization, Dolan does have a few words of wisdom and one caveat. She suggests first looking at your personal and professional networks. Is there anyone you know who is involved with a non-profit organization? If so, set out to learn more about what they do and what their specific duties entail. What is it you are passionate about? Dolan says you should contact a non-profit that is doing work in an area you are interested in. Go to some of their events. She says, “Shop non-profits the way you would shop for a major purchase, like a new car.” You should learn what each one is all about and select one that most closely aligns with your interests and passions. Dolan also adds that many corporate Community Relations departments at large for-profits often place employees in non-profits. So ask around your office and you might find that your company can help identify a great organization. It is important to be certain about what specific skills you might have that can benefit the organization. Depending on the size of the non-profit, it may need specialists in areas such as Legal, Finance, and IT. As promised, here comes the caveat: If you do come across a great charity that is a perfect fit for you, Dolan stresses you should go forward ready and willing to put in the work involved with joining a board. She explains, “The non-profit is spending resources to manage its board members. Use these resources wisely—be patient and recognize that to be a successful Board Member, you should bring in significantly more resources to help the organization that it takes to manage you as a volunteer.”