“Off the Wall” Podcast

Becoming a Philanthropist & Non-Profit Board Member with Meera Pillai

Mar 11, 2024 Charitable Giving & Philanthropy

As a philanthropist, how can you do more than just “give back” to a charitable cause? How do you make a real impact with your time, skills, passion, and money? Should you become a board member for a non-profit? Let’s dive into it.

In this Off the Wall chat, hosts David B. Armstrong and Jessica Gibbs welcome Meera Pillai, a retired IT professional turned philanthropist, to talk about the ways you can make an impact through philanthropy and board membership. Jessica also picks Dave’s brain about his own philanthropic endeavors, as he has many of them!

Meera shares her thoughts on what it takes to serve as a member on a non-profit board, the benefits and challenges of board membership, and how to make the most of your philanthropic efforts.

Plus, they discuss other (lower commitment) ways to volunteer your time, skills, and money to make an impact in local non-profits and community foundations.

“All you need is passion. If you have passion and you have an interest in a mission area, that’s all you need to serve on a non-profit board, in my opinion.” – Meera Pillai

So, which type of philanthropy is right for you? Tune in for ideas from an experienced philanthropist.

Are you looking for clarity, conviction and unfiltered advice about your wealth?

You’ve come to the right place.

Episode Timeline/Key Highlights:

[00:53] Introducing Meera Pillai & the topic of today’s episode.

[02:37] Dave’s philanthropic background.

[03:11] Meera’s & Dave’s transitions from philanthropist to board member: Why, when, and how they made the leap.

[08:34] How to choose which charity to support.

[09:41] What are the expectations/roles of a non-profit board member?

[14:08] Signs you should not be a non-profit board member.

[16:58] Surprising benefits and challenges of serving on a board.

[22:01] Important things to understand about your non-profit’s culture.

[28:22] Other ways to work with non-profits and get involved in local philanthropy.

[31:35] The key difference between restricted giving and unrestricted giving.

[38:53] What is a community foundation? + Why you should consider supporting one.

Resources Mentioned:

Giving USA 2023: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the year 2022: https://givingusa.org/ 

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About Meera Pillai:

Meera is a retired IT professional turned philanthropist. After an 11-year career at Booz Allen Hamilton, she left industry to focus on raising her children and shift her life purpose towards philanthropy and impact. Now with grown children, she is fully focused on local philanthropy supporting the Northern Virginia area through Board membership and outreach.

She currently serves as Board Chair of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of DC whose mission is to ease the hardship of childhood illness on families. She has also served as Chair of their annual fundraising 5K event. During her tenure, she has raised on average $15k annually for the organization.

Meera also serves on the Board of the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, whose mission is to advance equity through support of local philanthropy and community leadership and outreach. She currently serves on the Nominating Committee and Gala Committee. Meera served as Emcee of the 2022 “Raise the Region” Gala, which raised nearly $650,000 for the organization. She recently helped launch the Scholarship Fund for Northern Virginia, dedicated to supporting local students pursue higher education at a Virginia public college.

Most recently, Meera joined the Board of Educate Fairfax, the charitable foundation supporting Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), whose mission is to engage the community to invest in educational excellence and prepare FCPS students for the future. Meera currently serves as the Lead of the Community Engagement Committee.

Meera was with Booz Allen Hamilton in Mclean, VA for 11 years, serving in roles of IT Project Manager and Business Analyst to develop web-based applications for internal company operations. For 2 years prior to that she worked at OneSoft Corporation in Mclean in the roles of IT Project Manager and Business Analyst to develop e-commerce websites for clients such as WeightWatchers.com.

Meera earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia and her MBA at George Mason University. She lives in Fairfax, VA with her husband, two sons, and one dog.

Connect with Meera Pillai on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/meerapillai

Contact directly: meeravpillai@yahoo.com


Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:00:33] So welcome back to Off the Wall, everyone. So happy to have you. Hi, Dave.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:00:36] Hi. Great to see you again. And by the way, fun, because we’re in our podcast studio.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:00:42] In our new office.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:00:43] And our new office, the global headquarters of Monument Wealth Management here in Alexandria, Virginia. And our first in-person guest today. Very exciting.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:00:51] I’m very excited. So today we are going to be talking about philanthropy. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that the US is a very charitably inclined nation. In 2022, individuals, bequests, foundations and corporations gave an estimated $499 billion to US charities. And that number is actually down from the previous year. So I think that speaks to how much it’s been grained into American culture to think about supporting charitable causes. But what we really want to talk about today is how do you move beyond the feeling that you’re just giving money to a cause? How do you make an impact with your philanthropic giving? And that’s what our guest today is here to talk about. Our guest today is Meera Pillai. She’s a retired IT professional turned philanthropist. Her charitable priorities focus on addressing unmet basic needs for children in her local community. Meera’s philanthropy has taken many forms, including establishing a food bank program at her kid’s elementary school and volunteering extensively with organizations addressing children and food insecurity in Northern Virginia. Meera now serves on the boards of three nonprofit organizations. She is the board chair of the Ronald McDonald House charities of DC. She is a member of the board of the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, or CF Nova, where she helped launch the Scholarship Fund for Northern Virginia, and most recently she joined the board of Educate Fairfax, a charitable foundation that supports her local school district. So welcome, Meera.

Meera Pillai [00:02:26] Thank you, Dave and Jessica. I’m thrilled to be here. This is a wonderful, wonderful opportunity and I really appreciate the invitation.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:02:34] Absolutely. We’re actually going to switch things up a little bit today. I’m actually going to interview Dave as well as Meera because Dave has his own nonprofit chops. Like Meera, he’s a member of the board of the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, where he serves as head of the investment committee and also some added background. Meera and Dave both recently served on the executive search committee for CF Nova’s new president and CEO. And Dave is also a member of the board of directors of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation and the Station Foundation.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:03:04] Yes, thanks.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:03:05] You both have some serious street cred when it comes to philanthropy and serving on boards. So, Meera, I want to start with you. I want to zero in on this transition that you made from supporting causes financially and or with your time, to taking on a leadership role as a member of the board of an organization. When did you feel it was time to take on a greater role, and why and how did you make that leap?

Meera Pillai [00:03:31] Okay, well, for me, the road to board service was very happenstance and very random, and it won’t be like that for everyone, but it was for me. I left my career, IT career at Booz Allen, with every intention of making it a sabbatical. That was my thought when I left. Well, that is not what happened. Life went a whole different way, and I started volunteering at my kids elementary school as Jessica mentioned in the intro. Became shockingly aware of basic needs being unmet in elementary schools right in my neighborhood, which was one of those reality moments and got involved with setting up initiatives with the school, food bank, food backpack programs, holiday gift giving, summer support when kids are not in school, and delve into that. A bit down the road [00:04:16]a friend of mine who served on the board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of D.C.. He approached me to serve on the board, and at first I was just taken aback. What? Why would I serve on the board and what value would I add? And honestly, I think that’s misconception number one. And if anyone listening out there has felt the same, all you need is passion. If you have passion and you have an interest in a mission area, that’s all you need to serve on a nonprofit board, [26.5s] in my opinion. But anyway, forward six years later, and I’m now the chair of that organization, the Ronald McDonald House charities, and also serve on the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia and Educate Fairfax. And as to the why, for me, I zeroed in on nonprofits that focus on children and their needs. All three of these organizations do that. And so that was what I aligned with. And I think that that’s going to be different for everybody. Also, for me, [00:05:14]the reason I decided that board service was the right thing for me at that time is it was an opportunity to widen my philanthropic impact and reach. I could do so much more than I had been doing on this more grassroots level by serving on a board. [15.4s]

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:05:31] I really like what you said there about how you have clearly articulated for yourself what is my personal charitable priorities, and then you’re seeking out opportunities that support advancing those causes that you care most about. I think you are a great example of someone that just has a really tight theme and mission to what am I going to support and why? And you can answer those questions really clearly for yourself.

Meera Pillai [00:05:57] And that’s going to be different for other people as well. Dave, you’re a great example of that. Each board you serve on may have a different focus, but they’re something that draws you to that mission. And that is so very important if you’re going to serve on a nonprofit board is that you feel a connection to that mission. Because you’re volunteering, your time and your energy and your resources, and it needs to be something that you feel very passionately about, and feel you have an opportunity to move the needle on.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:06:23] Dave, did you come to board membership in a similar way?

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:06:26] Yeah, not quite as similar. I had never really consider joining a board before. And one day out of the blue, I got an email from somebody who reached out to me from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation and said, your name is being submitted as a candidate for an open board position on the investment committee, and you come highly recommended. And we would like to talk to you about it. So it was out of the blue, but in my mind I thought, well, geez, I’m so passionate about the Marine Corps anyway. Anybody that knows me knows that. And I was just so honored to do it. There was no way I was going to say no. So I just stumbled into this. I was voted on to the board and started serving. And what I realized was that that’s a very mature board. It’s been around for a long time. It’s made up with some very experienced people, and I didn’t realize this at the time. So I started serving on other boards. But boards do the forming, storming, norming, performing just like small entrepreneurship business. That was a performing board.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:07:23] It was in top gear.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:07:24] I wasn’t coming in and fixing anything. I was like, oh, I really like this. This is fun. I’m I’m involved in decision making and things like that. And then very shortly after that, I was approached about the community foundation, where Meera and I served together. That was a very similar role. So I got invited into it. I didn’t really seek it out. So that was an interesting way to come into it. And now I’m super passionate about it and love it.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:07:48] Right. So it’s just interesting that you guys both thought, I’ve never thought of board membership for myself. And then all of a sudden you have this opportunity to take advantage of it and you’re like, wow, there’s so much that I can do from being on a board. It’s just interesting to hear you both see your vision was widened and probably your philanthropic ideas. I’m just thinking more about you with CF Nova, you created a scholarship fund. I don’t know if you would have been thinking about creating a scholarship fund before being on the board.

Meera Pillai [00:08:12] No. Certainly not. And it took being on the board for some time to even understand the mechanics and realize that this could be possible. This is something that we can do. So you need a little bit of time also to get to know the organization and how the board works and figure out where you can make your mark, and you almost always can on a board. It just depends on what you want to address and how.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:08:34] Yeah. So talk to me more a little bit about what, in your opinion, mirror made a good charity for you to support.

Meera Pillai [00:08:39] Sure. For me I would say in one word it was passion. It’s what mission did I care about and what was the reason I wanted to serve on this board. And again, as I mentioned, for me, the aligning of my focus on nonprofits that address children in multitude of ways in. Each of these boards address children’s needs in different ways, but it does address children and their needs, and it’s also our community. These three nonprofits are based in our community, and that was really important to me. I have lived in Northern Virginia for decades now. I’m raising my children here, and to be able to make an impact right here in my local community was really important to me. That’s where I’m going to put my energy towards. But I think it’s really important that if you’re going to look at a charity that you want to support, that you’ve got that it tugs at your heartstrings. You’re volunteering your time, as Dave and I mentioned, and you’re going to put time into this and it needs to be something you care about, and you’re ready to jump in, in whatever way you can to make something meaningful happen.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:09:40] I want to delve into more of that nitty gritty of what does being on a board entail, particularly in terms of time, but also money, because they are are nonprofits. Meera, why don’t we you start with you and then, Dave, you can jump in.

Meera Pillai [00:09:53] Absolutely. That’s 100% true. You can have all the passion in the world for the nonprofits mission, but it needs to be a fit for you and your place in life, your time, commitments and what you’re able to reasonably give to this position. And so I would say in general board expectations fall into three buckets. Time, talent, and treasure. Though on the time front, you need to really be clear about what’s the time expectation, what are you going to be asked for in terms of your time. Meetings? There will likely be quarterly meetings. Where are they located? Are they virtual? And maybe you don’t live in this area or you commute back and forth. You need to make sure that these are things you can make work. You’ll most likely be asked to serve on at least one committee. Dave knows that well. You need to make sure that you’ve got the time for these things, because it’s a big commitment to join a board, and you need to put thought to whether you can honor that commitment  with the time that it requires. And attending meetings. It’s one of those things that sometimes you feel like, okay, you don’t want to make it a priority, but it’s important because we vote on things at meetings and we need a quorum at meetings. And so your time commitment is something to consider. In terms of talent, what do you bring to the table? That’s a really broad thing. It isn’t like you have to come in with a very specific skill set, but perhaps you have a financial background and that would lend itself to the Finance and Audit Committee. Maybe you have an interest in event planning, and most nonprofits at some point are going to plan an event, a fundraising event. Well, there’s a place for you to jump in. Something you bring to the table that can help the board with their initiatives. And then finally treasure. And that is basically your skin in the game. What are you willing to personally contribute and support the organization? The most nonprofit boards will have a give get requirement, and the give get requirement is either a combination of you fundraise and or you give the money yourself. You personally contribute more and more now boards are really preferring a combination of both give and get. So you raise the money fundraising, but you also give your own monetary donation because it showcases commitment. It showcases the board members are committed to this organization. That looks very good. When you’re seeking donations from other donors, is that you have a board that 100% donates to this organization. That’s how passionately they feel about it. So more and more, you’re going to find that the expectations are give and get. And so you need to be really clear about whether that’s a number that you feel comfortable with. And that’s something you can manage with your life situation. Asking for a copy of the board’s roles and responsibilities in advance. Really understanding what this board expects of you is a good idea. So these are some of the things, like the homework you would want to do before you say yes. You can be completely enamored with the mission and feel like it’s a complete fit for you. But the expectations of the board also need to be a fit.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:12:52] I’m trying to think back to what you were saying before about passion. You have to be particularly with that give get the expectation. I find that very interesting that you’re saying that more and more nonprofits are actually expecting you to bring in other donors. You have to be passionate enough about this organization to go out to your personal network, to try to talk to people about the organization, why you support it, maybe get them interested in donating. So that’s really interesting that you have to have the passion, because you may actually have an expectation to do some fundraising yourself, or be part of the development committee and part of helping to find new donors to support the organization.

Meera Pillai [00:13:30] Yep, absolutely.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:13:31] So, Dave, anything that you would add as far as what does being on a board entail or or really expectations that you should come into board membership or be thinking about before you accept a board membership?

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:13:44] It really is the time, talent, treasure. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that if you’re considering a board position, you have to have all three. You just need to understand what the expectation is for all three. I would encourage people to look at it like a job interview. You want to go in and make sure that you are interviewing the people who are hiring you to be on the board as much as they are interviewing you. And maybe I’ll take the tact of answering this question almost in reverse. Like what makes a bad board member? So if you’re the kind of person who has a hard time saying no, and somebody asks you to be on a board and you say yes, but you really mean no, please say no. Because and sometimes people get asked to be on a board because they’re wealthy. Their network is there, and the board really wants to leverage the access to your network. Okay, great. If you’re wealthy, you probably know that. If you’re the opposite end of the spectrum and that’s not the case, are you comfortable asking people for money or at least be comfortable up front and telling people my ability to access treasure is really limited, but I’m a CPA or I’m a lawyer, so my involvement on a committee like the audit committee or there’s spots in there for counsel sometimes on some boards, I can really contribute from a talent perspective, and it’s the board’s responsibility to even it all out and say, is this person going to bring more talent than treasurer? And is that okay? And then the last thing I’ll say, a. About being a board member is it’s actually kind of easy to ask people for money on behalf of a charity.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:15:16] Really?

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:15:17] I think so because I’m not asking for myself. I’m asking for the community when we’re out raising money for the Community Foundation, and then this is probably the best takeaways. If someone I’ll just use myself as an example says, hey, I’d love to get together with you. I’m on the board of the CF Nova. I’d like to tell you a little bit more about what we’re doing. Can I take you to lunch? That is code for I’m going to ask you for money. Okay. So you’ve got to know or. Hey, listen, I’ve got a table at this event. I would like for you to come to it. It’s a black tie gala. Something like that. We do this once a year with our gala. And so if you get invited to come to a table that somebody has paid for, the expectation is you’re raising your paddle and you’re donating something. If you are good at asking people and making people aware of those kind of things, as a board member, you’re a good board member. And then finding the right committee. Because, let’s say you put on the audit committee and you have no accounting background or legal background. You may not enjoy that job very much, so make sure you’re also asking, I understand I’m interviewing for a board position, but what committee do you see me being a good fit on? And then really, like you said, get the documents and find out what that role is and truly understand what it means from time perspective.

Meera Pillai [00:16:28] All good points. There is such great flexibility in these requirements. Boards are just happy to have engaged members and so there’s great flexibility around those expectations. It just needs to be a very clear and open dialog. Like Dave was saying, these are not hard and fast requirements. More just guidelines or treasure can come in so many different forms. Doesn’t necessarily have to be dollars. It’s just something you need to be aware of before you make that commitment.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:16:58] So what do you each enjoy about being on a board?

Meera Pillai [00:17:02] Okay, I’ll jump in first. What I have enjoyed being on board has been the people I’ve met. I’ve met so many wide and varied people on these boards. I have broadened my network immeasurably through board service. And not just through my fellow board members, but events that I get to attend now. And just the wide and varied people that come in my path now through boards has been really just very enriching for me. But also more than that is just personal growth. You serve on committees where you get pushed out of your comfort zone. You’re doing things that are out of your comfort zone, you’re learning along the way. And so it’s a lot of personal growth. The Community Foundation asked me to MC their gala two years ago. I still can’t believe I did it.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:17:47] You’re amazing.

Meera Pillai [00:17:48] I just I mean, even now the thought is like, how did I do that? But it’s one of those life bucket list items I’d never, ever, in a million years thought that I could do or would ever be asked to do. This podcast is another great example of another bucket list item. So you grow in ways you cannot even imagine or even think of. And so I think that has been really, really true for me. Those are the things I’ve gotten out of board service.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:18:13] I love that take. Yeah. Dave, how about you?

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:18:16] Yeah. First and foremost, I think it’s, involved with board membership on organizations that I truly believe in and I’m passionate about. And you said that earlier, if I was on the board of xyz and I didn’t have any interest in it, I don’t think I would enjoy that as much. But to just punctuate what you said, I think it’s about meeting all the people. And I come back to you and I worked very closely together for a lot of hours in a condensed period of time to do a CEO search and then hire a CEO for the organization. Okay, I’ve never done anything like that before. I’m going to be honest, I’ve never worked with a placement agency to find and hire. And I had no experience with any of that. And I learned so much. And then I’ll tell you what I really learned, was when we sat in the room and the CEO search committee started talking about the different candidates, the things that I learned about myself that I didn’t know about myself by listening to somebody else, advocate or not advocate for a candidate. I learned so much from that specific experience. We hire people, here nothing, I’ve never experienced anything like that. So I enjoy learning about all the new things I would never get exposure to in a way that contributes to the overall success of the organization. I really like that a lot.

Meera Pillai [00:19:30] That was an amazing learning experience, I would agree. And you’re also forgetting, Dave, that you’re also a great auction master. So at our gala two years ago, Dave was up there with the stand up and pledge part and he was great. If you’re looking for someone to follow in your future gala, this is your guy.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:19:48] We set the record. I think that year. I don’t think I had anything to do with maybe.

Meera Pillai [00:19:52] You told some great stories and you were very engaging. So I think you’ve got a second job there.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:19:56] That’s funny you say that. Most people say I’m not a good storyteller, so. Yeah. Okay.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:19:59] Oh, gosh, that was very sarcastic for those of you who don’t know Dave personally. Okay. So we talked about what you guys enjoy. I want to hear what’s the less glamorous side of being on a board.

Meera Pillai [00:20:09] There’s always going to be the less glamorous side. The time commitments at board meetings being one of them. And like I said earlier, it’s really important to get as many board members at meetings as possible. But most everyone’s got full time jobs that they are navigating and that is a priority for them. So when meetings are an afternoon and you’re trying to juggle getting to this board meeting with other obligations, that’s tough. That adds a little bit of stress. You know, that’s one of the things that’s tough is that you need to make sure that you can prioritize meetings. And for them are not always the most interesting, but you still need to figure out how you’re going to prioritize that. And then attending events. That’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Not everybody loves to do that. But it is important for board members to be seen at our events. It shows that we are committed to this organization. And that’s so I think that’s also something else to think about before you commit. Is this a board that has a lot of events where you’re going to be expected to be at many of them, and if that’s just not something that you enjoy? Then you might want to think otherwise, because I do think it’s very important for the board to be seen at enough events that shows that this is a board that is really committed to the cause and are demonstrating that by being out and about.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:21:22] Yeah. And again, also something to really do your due diligence on if you’re going to join a board. I agree with you. It’s the time that’s the least glamorous. And time is a big umbrella term, but it could be the events. But if you’re somebody who works a 9 to 5 or some people work a 9 to 8 job, something like that. And then there’s these other commitments. The unglamorous part is you’re adding an additional job to your job. Oh, by the way, you’re not getting a paycheck for it. Because there’s work to be done on the board and the travel and things like that. It’s the time. It’s the time is the least glamorous part of it. It’s just more things on your to do list.

Meera Pillai [00:22:01] Yeah. And now more and more working remotely. And like in your case, Dave, you’re not always in the area. It’s a challenge for a board to build their culture and cohesiveness with each other because everyone is so disparately located. And while it’s nice and ideal to try to have board meetings in person, that’s just not the new reality anymore. That you can always have every single person there in person, in a particular location, versus having some folks on zoom. But it is nice to try to get the board together when you can. I’ve tried to spearhead board socials, board events, and the boards I’m on just to get to meet some people in person, in a relaxed setting. Over a glass of wine, versus in the middle of the workday. Those things are important, but it’s nice when the whole board feels that way so that you make the time. Sometimes you just have to carve the time out so that you do get a meaningful out of this, out of your board service, beyond the mission that you’re trying to serve.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:22:52] I like that point about board culture, because I think when you’re going to accept a job, you think a lot about the company culture. Is there going to be a good fit for me? And what I’m looking for is that a healthy culture? And so I know you guys talked about you want to meet other board members, and I think you want to understand the culture of the board. I think you also want to understand the people who work at the organization and what their culture is, because you don’t know whether people appreciate that as much as is the case is that you’re on the development committee. You’re going to be working with the director of development for the organization very closely. You’re on the investment committee. You’re going to be working with the CFO or the chief investment officer. If it’s a big enough organization, they have one of those. You’re going to be working with people who are full time employees of the nonprofit. What’s the culture of the employees, the staff? What’s their strategic thinking? What are you coming in to? And I think that speaks what you were saying before, as far as are you coming in to a board that is still very much in the we are forming into something, or are you coming into one where everything’s firing on all cylinders and you’re in a performing board? So culture, I think that’s a really great point to understand that. And that’s the question.

Meera Pillai [00:23:57] Yes, yes, board culture is so different. It is important to understand board culture. Some boards are happy to have you as a board member. Come in, roll your sleeves up and just dive in. Find something you’re interested in and run with it. And other boards that are the more, as Dave mentioned, that are just a little bit more on their way, may not need that as much, or even want that as much. So you need to be really cognizant of that culture. And I think a great way is to reach out to other board members. I’ve had people reach out to me asking me questions about the boards I’m on to see if they’re interested. And I think that’s a great way to understand, and I try to be really honest about it. What do you want out of this board position? What are you interested in? And is this the kind of board that will give you the runway to do that? If so, great. But if it’s not, then maybe this is not the best fit for you. You need to decide are you the are you the roll your sleeves up kind of board member? And if so, you need to find the board that’s a fit for you. But if you’re a little bit more passive, you kind of want a little bit more background trying to figure things out. There is boards for that as well. But yes, meeting as many people in the organization and feeling out that culture is really important so that you don’t come in and you feel unhappy that you’re not getting to add the impact you want, or that you’re being over leveraged and you just don’t have the time for this.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:25:12] Also, you’re like, well, how do I do that? I think a step that we skipped over is you can start supporting an organization, not being a part of the board. You can start supporting via unrestricted funding or restricted funding, which I’m hopefully we’ll talk about in a second and start building relationships with with the staff at organization. Understand, yeah, like these people really have a great strategic vision. They’re very mission driven. They have really ambitious priorities that I’m interested in supporting. You can assess some of these questions before you even get to board membership. I know you guys both cited examples where you asked to be on a board out of the blue, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the way that has to go. You can build a relationship with an organization first and then evolve to being a board member.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:25:54] Then I’ll even throw something crazy out, too. If you see a board that you have a passion or an interest in, reach out to them and say, what do I do to be considered in the next nomination committee meeting? I’d be really interested. And here’s my background on things like that. And we were talking about this before we hit record, just what’s happening with membership on CF Nova. And it’s not like we have a pile of resumes. So when people reach out and say, I’m really interested in doing this, do that.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:26:20] You will make a development officer’s day and you call them and say, I am interested in supporting your organization.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:26:27] Or being on the board. Yeah, right. Yeah, yeah.

Meera Pillai [00:26:28] With the reason why us what’s the reason? I’m sure almost always there’s going to be a compelling reason that you are going to be like, that sounds great because you just want people who are committed are engaged. This resonates with them, and that’s all you need. And after that, you’re going to find a way to make your mark. Yeah. Dave, you serve on the finance committee, which is not always glamorous, but it’s a job that needs to get done.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:26:55] Yeah. You said something though, Jessica. I do want to just hit on it real quick before we move on to the next question. But what people need to understand about a board is that there’s a group of people, full time employees, who run the organization. So CF Nova, there are paid people who work there, and they run the organization on a daily basis. And then there’s the board. And the board’s role is to hold the paid employees, the people who are running it on a daily basis, to be adhering to the mission of the organization. And and this is even more important, providing oversight to make sure that the people who are working in the nonprofit are doing that. So you have a supervisory role, you have an oversight. Your job as a member of the board directors is to provide oversight. It’s a little bit like a professional sports team. There’s the owners, and then there’s the people on the field who are calling the plays every single day. And sometimes the people who sit in the owner’s suite don’t have any idea what the sport is even about, but they’re experts in marketing or they’re experts in ticket sales or something like that. And then there’s people who do you know what’s going on in the field? But at the end of the day, it’s the coaches on the field that are running the team, and that’s the full time employees of the organization. So to the point about culture, making sure that you are driving with what’s happening there, that’s important because there can be a vibration there that can make you unhappy or potentially a bad board member.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:28:09] You don’t want to be butting up against the staff that’s trying to run and execute on the charitable organization’s mission. So yeah, so obviously we’ve talked a lot about board membership, and that is a great way to have a strong impact on a charitable organization. But I’m interested in hearing some other ways to make a big impact on an organization and their charitable mission besides board membership.

Meera Pillai [00:28:32] Sure. I’ll jump in first. One of the ways that comes to mind is something that we do at the Community Foundation, which is review grants. That’s the bread and butter of how our organization works, is that we issue grants to local nonprofits, and they submit their grant applications. I’m going to serve on that committee again this year. We need reviewers of grants, and we got volunteers from all over. I did not even know that until I joined is that grant reviewers are not necessarily affiliated with the organization anyway. They’re just volunteering to review grants for us. And I think that’s a fabulous way to get involved in local philanthropy without any other commitment other than that short period of time where you’re reviewing grants, you get to what are the needs on the ground in our area and have an impact on which organizations are going to get funding from this organization. I think that’s a great introduction to a particular organization in terms of seeing, are you interested? Do you like their mission? But yeah, grant review is one area. Another is event planning. As an example, with the Community Foundation, the gala committee is huge. It’s about 30 people and they’re all volunteers from all over the place, not affiliated with the organization, not staff or board. There are staff and board members on the committee, of course, but people just interested, interested in an event planning, interested in the cause. I’m interested in being part of it and it is a huge endeavor. It takes so much manpower. Every single person on that committee is needed. But again, they’re just volunteering their time and that’s another great way to get involved. Beyond that, some nonprofits will have offshoots like a leadership council or a development council, and these are small groups of people that are interested in the strategic mission and strategic planning of the organization, and you can get involved in these a fraction of the time commitment that board service would entail. Not every board has that, but there are many who do that offer these kind of opportunities. So that could be something that you look for. And this is all of course, above and beyond. Every single nonprofit in our area will post on their website what their needs are, whether it’s a company comes in and cooks for the Ronald McDonald House, that’s a great team building activity that a lot of companies will sign up to do more, participate in a 5K as a team. Those are the standard ways, but these are the ones you may not think about as being able to be on a grant committee or event planning committee or a development council. So just sort of some out of the box ways you can get involved in local philanthropy.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:30:56] Yeah, I think another way to do it too, and this is a little bit more about the money side of it, understanding what planned giving is as a person. So. If Mr. and Mrs. Smith really want to make an impact on an organization, they should be calling that organization, saying, can I speak to somebody about planned giving and then setting up trust in a state vehicle so that when you pass away and your estate is executed, that a portion of your money after the second to die of a couple. Let’s say there is a designated gift to that charity, and it happens. And it can be an unrestricted donation or an unrestricted donation. I would encourage, just based on our experience, please make it an unrestricted.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:31:35] Can I just do a quick jargon timeout for those who are not as well versed? So you heard me and Dave just now just throw around those terms unrestricted and unrestricted giving. So what those basically means is unrestricted. Think general operating fund. It’s funds that the name entails. It’s not tied to supporting any particular cause or project within the organization. Restricted giving is I want to give to support this particular project or initiative. So whereas restricted giving does sound good, it feels like, oh, I will give money and it will support this specific project or outcome. Unrestricted giving is actually in many ways even more valuable to an organization. I’d love for you guys to expand on this, but unrestricted giving is where the organization isn’t tied to using it for a specific purpose. So that means that if a different priority comes up, if the priority changes, if they need to make investments in hiring staff and improving their technology systems, renting a new office space, building something that they have that flexibility to use those unrestricted or general operating funds to do what they strategically think is going to best advance the organization and the mission in that moment. So that is, I think, something that often gets overlooked because you’re like, well, I don’t just want to support the general operations. And I know things like Charity navigator, they’re going to pull information from a 990 form organization and look at, oh, what percentage of the organization’s budget is spent on running the organization that impacts what the charities score is. Part of, you may think, oh, that’s not something that I really want to support, but if you guys can expand on this even more unrestricted giving is really, really important.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:33:23] Yeah, I can give an example of where restricted giving could be a problem. So if you imagine somebody says, okay, when I pass away, I want $1 million to go to this organization, and I want to be a restricted gift that only supports an education effort, let’s say. And you set it up and you say, I want to okay, $1 million. So 5%, $50,000 a year. I want to make sure that this restricted gift will give $50,000 a year to this one education.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:33:49] And that’s an endowment fund, not even a subcategory within restricted giving.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:33:53] But they can set restricted giving up like this. And so then okay that’s fine. Year one fast forward 30 years and that million dollars isn’t been invested through the investment committee. And that $1 million were $10 million. But they can still only get $50,000, and they can only give it to this one thing. And so sometimes some of the things that you feel like are great restrictions and that are helpful actually become all that. Whereas if it’s unrestricted, people can say like, you know what, our lease is up and we have to move and this organization has to move. So we need to hire moving company. We need to buy furniture and things like that in our space.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:34:26] Right.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:34:26] So there are things that are required to keep that organization going. And they need the flexibility to be able to tap funds to be able to help out with it, with general operating.

Meera Pillai [00:34:35] Absolutely. I would say on all three boards, I’m on the dilemma of restricted versus unrestricted funding is the most challenging for exactly all the reasons Dave just articulated. One more example is one of the reasons that I wanted to push forward. The scholarship fund for Northern Virginia with the Community Foundation is that I served on the scholarship grant committee. On scholarships committee, I got to see firsthand how restricted funding in that manner works with the scholarship funds that have been established with CF Nova that are very specific. So each scholarship may have a very, very particular criteria. I want my scholarship to support students that are going into a health care field or your institution at these locations. So it’s very, very specific. Or maybe it’s a scholarship fund only exclusively to certain high schools. And that’s all great. We don’t want to take away from that at all because it’s all helping people one way or the other, but it’s restricted. It is not flexible funding for scholarships that way. So this new fund now is going to allow you to donate at any level. You can donate $100, you can donate a million dollars. And now we’ll be able to deploy those scholarship funds to students in any field. Doesn’t matter. It’s any high school in Northern Virginia. We’ll have a lot more flexibility. Still in the scholarship arena, but we’re trying to remove all those restrictions and that’s talking about scholarships. But as Dave talked about, there’s so many needs of a nonprofit organization, and everybody does want to give knowing exactly where their funds are going to go. And I understand that totally as a donor as well. But to the extent possible that you can try to look beyond that when you give your funds and mark them as unrestricted, it really, really helps the overall organization move their mission forward.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:36:19] Well, I was reflecting on this question too. Just having being a financial planner who really enjoys talking about charitable giving with our clients and has asked a lot of clients, how are you making an impact with your charitable giving? On the money side, some examples that I thought were really interesting is matching grants. So I’ve had clients who say for every $30,000 that others donate will match that amount. That’s a great way to create momentum, where you’re going out to your general donor pool or your general contact list, and you’re trying to raise money. That may motivate someone to say, okay, well, my small gift of $1,000 is going to help contribute to getting a whole other $30,000. So matching gifts can be a great way to build momentum. And another example that I’ve heard is seed funding. So I think particularly with smaller community nonprofits like you were talking about Meera, you can have these projects that can be really difficult to fundraise for. And if you as a donor can be thinking about alright, I’m going to support the very start of a project when it’s really difficult to raise funds for. I’m going to contribute money towards buying the land or getting the permits that are going to eventually build, I’m making this up like a shelter house. That if you can get that off the ground and then the organization can say, okay, look, we have this shelter house, we’re supporting this many people. We want to build out programs from these people. That’s where it becomes a little bit easier to fundraise. But maybe raising money to build permits and hire a construction team, that’s going to be more difficult for a nonprofit to do. So you can think about, is there seed funding? I think that really comes from, again, building the connections with the staff at the organization and understanding where their priorities are and what they’d like to do, because then you can find those opportunities that are at the very, very beginning of ideas. But that’s a great way to make impact. So I think if you’ve been part of a nonprofit you’ve been giving for years, you’ve built some relationships with the organization and you’re starting to see some really good results. I think just start tracing your history with an organization and try to pinpoint where you had success. And then, I think, apply those best practices to your giving going forward. The kind of would be my general advice to people as you’re thinking about, okay, where have I actually had success in the past and that can help drive figuring out how to have even more impact in the future. So you mentioned Meera at Community Foundation, and I think it’s such a unique type of organization. I think people are used to a nonprofit that has a very specific mission, or it’s doing a very specific work, but a community foundation. Like you said, you’re reviewing grant requests from other organizations. That’s different. So can you talk about what is a community foundation, how it’s different from other charitable organizations, and why someone should consider supporting a community foundation?

Meera Pillai [00:39:24] The Community Foundation is basically a public charity that supports a specific geographic area. So you’ll find a community foundation in almost every region. We have several in our region just right here, and it works by pulling donations that come in from a variety of sources, then are then used to support the community’s needs in a wide variety of ways. Whether it’s through through grants, whether it’s through scholarships, all kinds of mechanisms. But what’s unique about the Community Foundation is it doesn’t just support one cause. As a typical nonprofit with Habitat for Humanity does, we know what Ronald McDonald House charities does. It’s a specific mission. The community foundations operate differently because there’s not a mission area I can think of that isn’t under the umbrella of the organization to support in our Northern Virginia region. And what I love about that is that you then can make an impact in areas you might not have thought of before. I think of it as one stop shopping in terms of charitable support. Your donation goes a very long way. You can specify areas you want to support. Maybe you’re interested in military, aging, environment, the arts, but that’s all within our umbrella. And I think that’s a really cool thing for that community foundations in general do. And you can support a community foundation in a multitude of ways. You can just generally donate. One of the things that we did is we set up a fund. CF Nova calls it a permanent fund. So that allows us to contribute to this organization. But they have the flexibility of deploying those funds in how it’s best suited for them. But it’s broad. It’s not just going to be one particular mission area. I really like that it’s making an impact in the region I live in right here in my community. You can set up donor advised funds. You could set up a scholarship fund. There’s just many ways that you can get engaged with the Community Foundation for Philanthropic Giving.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:41:18] I’ve personally loved community foundations as a donor from the standpoint of when natural disaster events have happened. So specifically the fire in Maui or the hurricane in Houston, I personally donated to the Community Foundation of Houston, the Community Foundation of Hawai’i, to their Maui Fund because I feel like I’m in a place when a natural disaster happens, you need to deploy funds immediately. I’m not at a place. Go research. What is the best small local organization on Maui that I should be giving my money to? That’s what a community foundation exists for, is they have built the connections with the small organizations within the community. They know where the needs are. They know who is responsible to manage the money. They know what’s going to have the most impact. And so just giving unrestricted funds to a community foundation after some of these natural disaster events, I felt like that is a great way for me to help the community without putting some burden on me of trying to figure out what its charity should I be supporting?

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:42:16] Yeah, a lot of people would default to just okay, Red Cross. Great. But Red Cross has a lot of things. And so you donate money to them and the money. But if you’re like, I want to do Maui, I want you Maui or or Northern Virginia, you donate to the community foundation. And they’re the boots on the ground people who know where those resources need to be deployed. And I’ll share an actual real life example that you and I were involved with Meera was when the evacuation from Afghanistan happened, and we started resettling a lot of Afghan refugees. A lot of people don’t know this, but Northern Virginia is one of the top three relocation places in the entire country. So we were getting relocated folks from Afghanistan in refugee status, and they land. And then what? Most people drive and work every single day. Had no idea this was going on. We did. So we started deploying resources to support the Afghan resettlement. And it’s amazing the things that you don’t think people need. But it was translation services and legal. People that needed legal help. And how do they fill out their immigration forms and folks that just land with basically a backpack on their back and they don’t have anything? We started deploying resources in the community ASAP on that. I don’t think people really knew what was going on there, but we as a community foundation were there immediately helping everybody out with the financial resources to fund. Basically it was grants. So schools or things like that or clothing, and that was a massive effort and had a huge impact on that community.

Meera Pillai [00:43:47] I believe we also similarly supported, you know, deployed funds for COVID relief support concept is this one organization has reach and tentacles all over the place. Whereas if you just try to support one organization and have that same reach.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:44:02] Another great example there too is remember when the census happened? And so we were deploying resources to make sure that we were educating people to fill out the census, because if there were folks out there who maybe were under gray area immigration status, let’s say they felt like, oh, if I fill this census out, I could be highlighting myself, then we don’t get the resources from the census to help the people who are living in there. So we did a massive education effort on that too. And that’s just another example of things that are happening in the community. So I don’t know, are you pretty happy with the Committee Foundation? I’m pretty happy with it.

Meera Pillai [00:44:34] We just recorded a commercial.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:44:37] Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we didn’t charge them anything.

Meera Pillai [00:44:40] So that was really great. Hopefully, you know, future board members, it can be hard to find.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:44:45] Or donors.

Meera Pillai [00:44:46] And donors. I think the long and short of it is in our area. We have a plethora of opportunities to get involved with any manner of philanthropy that is of your interest. It’s a matter of reaching out to resources, doing some of your homework, and doing some soul searching of what you want to get involved in and what speaks to you. And I think we’re so lucky to live in this area where you can find an organization where you can jump in and really make a difference and feel like you see the difference you’re making. I think that’s important, too, is that you have a sense that you have done something good. You’re not just sitting on a board and not getting anything done. You don’t feel like you’ve actually done something. I think Dave and I, with the boards we’ve done, walk away feeling like I’ve done something good.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:45:28] Well, this has been a fantastic conversation. I think we really got a sense of not only how you guys make an impact on your community, but also how you find purpose in your charitable work. And we love that because our podcast is all about building wealth with purpose. So thank you so much, Meera.

Meera Pillai [00:45:43] Thank you for having me.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:45:45] It’s also great to see you. I mean, it’s a convenient excuse to get together.

Meera Pillai [00:45:48] They have kind of fun office here with a bunch of cute doggies. So a lot of fun to come here.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:45:53] Yes. And for everyone listening, just a reminder that you can keep up with our newest episodes of Off the Wall by subscribing to the podcast. Next month, we’ll be reviewing what went on in the markets in Q1 2024. It’s always popular episodes for us, but this time we’re going to have a special guest from JP Morgan, so you won’t want to miss it.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:46:10] Very excited about.

Jessica Gibbs, CFP ® [00:46:11] That. All right. So next time everyone. Thank you.

David B. Armstrong, CFA [00:46:13] Thank you.

About "Off The Wall"

OFF THE WALL is a podcast for business professionals and high-net-worth investors who want to build wealth with purpose. A little bit Wall Street, a little bit off-the-wall; it’s your go-to for straightforward, unfiltered wealth advice on topics that founders, business owners, and executives care about.

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