Melanie D.G. Kaplan
Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.
Stepping into a volunteer leadership position is a serious commitment, but the rewards of board service—in terms of professional and personal development—make it well worth it. Meet three standout board members who are using their voices and experience to advance their associations' missions and industries.
Board leaders are selected based on several factors and competencies: career experience, demonstrated leadership skills, and the ability to work as part of a team, to name a few. But perhaps the factor that makes for the best board members is an intense passion for the industry their association serves.
Associations Now spoke to three board members who hold that passion for organizations with three very different focuses: motorcycling, hunger, and geospatial intelligence. Here, they explain how they've put their experience and enthusiasm to work to champion their organization's mission and message.
A couple of decades ago, Maggie McNally Bradshaw could be found riding her motorcycle around Albany, New York, with children in sidecars and occasionally a small pop-up camper in tow. Most of the time, her kids were on board with motorcycle travel, and today they are both members, along with their mom, of the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA). But her son drew the line at school drop-offs.
"Here I was thinking I was the cool mom," says Bradshaw, now the first female chair of AMA's board of directors. "But my son didn't want me driving him to school, because he was embarrassed."
In the years since, Bradshaw has only gotten cooler. And she still doesn't mind doing things that others might find embarrassing. Case in point: At the 2013 AMA Hall of Fame induction in Las Vegas, Bradshaw—a dirt bike beginner—joined some colleagues for desert riding. "I crashed, and I crashed, and I crashed," she says. "I was scared to death a couple times, but it was so much fun. I think everyone got a turn picking me up."
That sense of daring and a willingness to take risks were cultivated early. Bradshaw was first exposed to motorcycles at age 11, when her cousin took her for a ride on a Triumph. Several years later, somebody told her that women "don't ride motorcycles," and her hackles were up. She got her riding permit, and there was no turning back.
As AMA's first female board chair (and only the third woman on the board since the association was founded in 1924), Bradshaw has two priorities: advocating for motorcycling safety—especially important to her, after a serious crash in 1983—and serving as a strong voice representing female riders.
In her early riding days, Bradshaw rarely saw other gal riders. That has changed drastically: In the beginner motorcycle-safety classes she teaches, about half the students are female. Still, she says, women are largely underrepresented.
AMA President and CEO Rob Dingman says although many women occupy association leadership positions, Bradshaw's role is significant because motorcycling has traditionally been such a male-dominated industry.
"She hit the ground running, creating new board committees and handing out committee assignments at her very first board meeting as chair," Dingman says, noting that her collaborative style has re-energized members and yielded more productive meetings.
Bradshaw is an active rider, motorcycling to her state government job where she works in the information technology services department and hitting the road with groups including Irish Riders, Women on Wheels, and Motor Maids. She thrives on a full schedule, and her list-making ability is epic. "I make lists, and then lists of my lists. I tell people, 'Don't feel like you're nagging me—if there's something I'm forgetting, feel free to remind me,'" she says. Although Bradshaw doesn't have extensive business experience, she brings communication skills to the board and makes sure everyone has a voice.
She wasn't always so comfortable in the boardroom.
"It was scary coming in," Bradshaw says. "I felt like I'd be the token girl, dealing with really experienced people who are leaders in the industry. But then I found myself surrounded by this group of brilliant people who have made me feel welcome. These guys make it a dream position, and it's a great opportunity for me personally."
Vinsen Faris understands that sometimes the best way to make his voice heard is to step back and let other folks do the talking.
Faris, board chair of Meals on Wheels Association of America (MOWAA) and executive director of Meals on Wheels of Johnson and Ellis Counties in North Central Texas, remembers going to the conservative Texas legislature in 2007, armed with facts and figures to fight for direct funding for home-delivered meal programs. But he didn't need his data. Legislators told stories of their own Meals on Wheels experiences involving family members and friends, and the legislation passed unanimously in both houses— a rare occurrence in Austin. Since then, the state has funded $76 million for home-delivered meal programs.
"It was not passed because of me and my colleagues," Faris says. "We simply helped legislators use their own voices to support one another in getting this done."
Faris was a member of the MOWAA board more than a decade ago, when it was best described as a trade organization. This time around, the association is larger and more involved in research and advocacy. "The brand identity is greater today than it's ever been," Faris says, "which in turn brings in more corporate support."
MOWAA had worked with an association management company until 2012, when the association hired its first president and CEO. When Ellie Hollander was interviewed for the position, she was interested in the job; once she met Faris, she says, she really wanted it—and got it.
"We couldn't hope to have a more active, passionate, and committed advocate for Meals on Wheels than Vinsen," Hollander says. "He is open to hearing counter-viewpoints and actively seeks others' perspectives with curiosity and respect."
Big changes are underway at MOWAA, and Faris embraces the process, which has included an ideation session and brainstorming with major players in the fight against hunger. "We continually have to preach the gospel that we're all in this together," he says.
In that spirit, he tries to give Hollander as much support as possible. From the time she was hired, he pledged to be available to her 24/7. He has learned—from the support he gets from his own board in Texas, the MOWAA staff, and his wife—that a significant measure of success comes from having good people behind you.
Faris says his leadership style is simple: He makes sure the right people are at the table with him. "I'm a very small part," he says. "I'm simply trying to clear a path for others to come after me."
Gaby Maldonado, a new board member at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF), is a self-described "map dork." She can study maps for hours, and she's even made one the focal point of her living room.
"I like maps that show interesting ways of representing data or showcasing social behaviors and correlations," she says. "A map about whether people say 'Coke,' 'pop,' or 'soda' and how it differs regionally—I love that!"
It only made sense that Maldonado's map love would lead her to her collegiate studies, career, and volunteer work. A senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, she is a geospatial intelligence expert who has been active in the USGIF Young Professionals Working Group.
"When they asked me to join the board, I was so excited; it was such an honor," she says. "At work, you don't always interact closely with other young professionals, so I thought this would be a good way to help my client and to network in the industry." She says her position on the board is also a good opportunity for her to give a voice to young professionals, as well as nontraditional users of geospatial intelligence, such as border control officers and law enforcement. (More traditional users are members of the intelligence community.)
USGIF's young professionals group is active in outreach to high school and college students—attending high school fairs, educating students about careers in geospatial intelligence, and mentoring teens who have an interest in geography and technology. Maldonado says she had to get over her shyness and learn to stand up for these young people, especially in her board work.
"It's a bit intimidating, as a young professional, talking to industry leaders who have been there 30 or 40 years. But I tell them, these are the future leaders; eventually, these young professionals will be the leaders, and they will shape the tradecraft," she says. "Eventually, the torch will be passed to us."
USGIF CEO Keith Masback says that while much of the board is composed of senior leaders across industry, government, and academia, the perspective of young professionals like Maldonado is critically important. "We've got to remain committed to developing the next generation of leaders in our field," he says. Furthermore, when young professional board members are exposed to the more senior members, "we believe they will benefit from this experience as they ultimately advance to take on positions of greater responsibility in our community."
Maldonado is constantly pursuing her career goals. A Booz Allen colleague who has served as a mentor suggested she sit down and write her current resume, her resume in five years, and one for 10 to 20 years down the line.
"That's kind of how I defined my goals: What do I want to see on my resume several years from now?" she says. "I'm very goal-oriented, so this really helps me, and this exercise is also a reminder of the importance of mentorship—no matter where you are in your career."
Melanie D.G. Kaplan writes regularly for The Washington Post and is a contributing editor at SmartPlanet/CBS Interactive.
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Taking the Lead."]