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May 08, 2015 Articles

Giving Back Provides More than Warm Fuzzies

By Laura Liss

I first became involved with WITS (Working in the Schools) as a volunteer in 1999. After 10 minutes in the Midday Mentoring Program, I was hooked. The mission of WITS is to promote literacy and the love of learning in underserved Chicago Public School elementary students. WITS primarily focuses on early education, because if kids do not learn to read by the third grade, it is a challenge for them to ever catch up. The Midday Mentoring Program buses volunteers from businesses in the Chicago loop to public schools during the lunch hour, so that positive adult role models can read one-on-one with students in their classrooms.

After volunteering for a few years, I decided to join WITS’ associates board. The more I learned about the organization and the good WITS does on a daily basis, the more I wanted to contribute. So, a few years later, in 2007, I joined WITS’ board of directors. Then, in 2012, I was elected to WITS’ executive committee and have since served as vice president–legal. As a member of the board of directors and executive committee, among other commitments, I attend WITS’ quarterly board meetings and monthly executive committee meetings.

In considering board involvement, you may wonder how to find the time with the demands of a legal career and other personal obligations. But when you are truly passionate about an organization, you find the time. You will be pleasantly surprised that you can make time for “one more thing.” Simply put the events on your calendar, then schedule around them, just as you would a court hearing or client meeting. You likely will be more productive and engaged when you return to your office. In fact, WITS has taken note of how the learning experience in its Midday Mentoring Program is uniquely reciprocal. Friendships are formed, and the perspectives of both the student and the volunteer are expanded.

While my path to choosing a board was different, you can strategically choose an organization that provides the opportunity to network with fellow board members. Most organizations post their current board members, along with their respective titles and affiliated corporations, on their websites. If you commit your time and energy to the organization, others will get to know you and your strengths in a neutral (non-sales) setting, while you work alongside them towards a mutual goal. In my role as vice president–legal of WITS, I serve as the organization’s quasi general counsel (we do not have a general counsel), and I also advise the organization on employment law and human resources issues. I draft and review contracts. I assist with personnel policies, staff hiring, firing, and discipline, and our executive director’s annual review. This is a unique opportunity to display my legal expertise to the board, primarily made up of high-level business executives. This certainly is not a reason to join a board, but it is an ancillary benefit of board service that may lead to business or referral opportunities.

Do not get me wrong, there are only so many hours in the day. With a full-time employment law practice and young kids of my own, something had to give, so I have taken a break from Midday Mentoring for the time being. When my own kids are grown and spare time is not at such a premium, I will get back to being a WITS mentor. For now, I am content with my board and executive committee involvement. But, I’ll be back!

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, volunteering, mentoring, community service, nonprofits, board service

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