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Bringing it all back home Featured

12:10pm EDT May 31, 2002
In late summer 1999, attorney Craig Boise moved to Cleveland from New York City. He and his wife, April, had served on nonprofit boards in New York and in Boise's hometown of Kansas City, so it seemed natural for the young couple to do the same in their new city.

But where to begin?

Boise, a senior associate at Thompson Hine LLP, talked with a partner at the firm about a Cleveland organization called Business Volunteers Unlimited that places business executives on nonprofit boards. He was intrigued.

"My wife is from the area, but we didn't know about all the organizations," says the soft-spoken Boise. "Cleveland just has so many nonprofits; we wanted to get a feel of which one would be best for us."

Boise called BVU President Alice Korngold about getting involved. After several interviews and a seminar, he was presented with about 10 organizations suited to his interests.

A classically-trained pianist, Boise studied piano performance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music but altered his career plans midway to become a police officer. His time on the police force nurtured an interest in law, and he later enrolled in law school, although he never left behind his love of music and the performing arts.

One organization Boise discovered through BVU was the Karamu House, the oldest African-American cultural arts organization in the country. Poet Langston Hughes was a member, as was stage and screen actor Robert Guillaume. Boise joined the board and was appointed treasurer.

"It would've taken a longer time to find an organization like Karamu House if it weren't for the BVU," Boise says. "The other thing is, you know that these organizations you're presented with are looking for board members. It eliminates a lot of the guess work."

Business Volunteers Unlimited is best known for connecting Cleveland-area business executives to nonprofit and charitable boards and for helping companies design volunteer programs.

BVU's services are unique. No group like it exists anywhere else in the country. Korngold and her staff are currently helping to develop a similar organization in Baltimore, and BVU recently received a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to spread the program around the country.

"Now, other cities and foundations are even more interested," Korngold says. "So we'll see where this leads to. But it's a good step forward."

BVU was established in January 1993 by a group of Cleveland's largest companies: Eaton Corp.; Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue; BP; TRW Corp.; and KeyBank. These companies devote millions of dollars to charities, but their leaders thought there must be ways to help other than throwing money at nonprofits.

"They wanted to channel talented people to help these nonprofits, but they needed a vehicle to do that," Korngold says.

The founding group's other goal was to increase the number of companies involved in charitable activities. Korngold, who had founded and run other nonprofits, was approached by these companies to form a new kind of organization that would match executives and companies with nonprofits.

"We looked around the country for other models we could learn from, and lo and behold, there were none," Korngold says. "So we realized, we'll have to invent this."

Korngold and her staff interviewed more than 200 nonprofit directors, corporate leaders, board members and fund-raisers to get their input about BVU's mission. Using that information, she created a model, rolled it out and has since refined it.

"The model works quite magnificently," Korngold says. "We're able to draw talented business people, who bring valuable business skills to the table, and deploy them to the nonprofit sector at a time when nonprofits more than ever need access to these business skills."

Today, there are more than 120 business members. Membership plans range from $1,500 to $15,000. BVU helps companies develop volunteer activities, and train and place executives on nonprofit boards based on their areas of interest. To date, it has placed 685 executives on 215 boards.

BVU works with more than 650 nonprofit organizations, matching business experts with nonprofits to help with management, finance, marketing, real estate and public relations on the boards, or just to act as advisers.

But why do companies and nonprofits need BVU to find each other?

"Companies are in the business of doing what they do for a living," Korngold says. "But companies are interested in helping in the community, especially at the local level. What they're saying to us is we want to be involved, we have people who want to be involved, but we don't know the nonprofit sector and we don't have the time and resources to do that research."

Korngold's staff also helps highlight organizations and volunteer projects that may not get the recognition that larger charitable groups like the Red Cross and the United Way do.

"I didn't want to get involved in a huge organization," says Scott Durham, vice chairman and COO of HKM Direct Market Communications Inc.

He's been on the board of Providence House, a shelter for infants, since December.

"We own our own business, and we're used to being more hands-on," he says. "I thought if I got on a board with 75 people, I wouldn't feel like I was contributing."

Jacqueline Acho, a partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and a former chemical scientist, joined the board of the National Inventors Hall of Fame after learning about it through BVU.

"BVU knows all of the organizations, and they know a lot about them," says Acho. "They know what stage of development they're at, they know what kind of executive director they have, and they know the quality and activity level of the board. It would've been silly for me to try to find all of that out by myself when they've got it."

No one denies the ancillary business benefits of charitable activity, although few companies get involved for those reasons. Charitable work boosts morale among employees, provides good exposure for the companies involved and connects business leaders who might not otherwise meet. Durham says networking, however, is never a top priority in the organizations in which he is involved.

"You can't go on one of those boards and be pushy, or you would look like a jerk," Durham says. "But if you get on a board and be yourself and you do a good job and prove yourself, people will start to know who you are and what you're capable of, and professionally, they would consider you for opportunities."

Executives say another business benefit of serving on boards is that they are presented with problems different from the kind they usually face in their industry, which can help them solve a problem in their own company. Likewise, the nonprofits gain professional expertise from those recommended by BVU.

"When you run your own business, you're aware of a lot different things," Durham says. "I'm used to fixing a roof when it breaks. I'm used to knowing that you have to have safety programs and maintenance programs. So I contribute that expertise, not just one specific area."

Boise says his legal expertise has been an asset on the Karamu House board.

"I can help resolve certain issues, such as employment matters or compliance with ADA requirements," he says. "But more than anything, I'm not afraid to pick up a phone and ask for money. Fund-raising is a tough thing to do, but a very necessary part of the job."

Like Boise, Brad Norrick, senior vice president at Marsh Inc., was turned on to BVU by a colleague after he moved to Cleveland from Indianapolis. Through the organization, he found Young Audiences of Greater Cleveland, which brings professional artists, including storytellers, poets, musicians, dancers and actors, to Cleveland classrooms.

"It's a big deal, especially in Cleveland, where arts education has really been curtailed over the last decade," Norrick says. "This organization was perfect for me because I wanted to be involved with something having to do with kids and the theatre arts."

Norrick joined the Young Audiences board of trustees in 1999, then became chair of the development committee, where he coordinated fund-raising efforts. He was then promoted to chairman of the board.

"We had one of our most successful years last year," Norrick says. "This is an organization that is doing some wonderful work, and I'm really proud to be part of it." How to reach: Business Volunteers Unlimited, (216) 736-7711.