Earlier this year, the Parkinson’s Foundation announced the appointment of Jena Abernathy to its board of directors. Abernathy is senior partner and managing partner/chair of Board Services for Witt/Kieffer, and has a personal connection to the Parkinson’s mission. In the interview below, she shares thoughts about joining the Parkinson’s board and offers advice on how current and future not-for-profit board members can make the most of their experience.
Why was a position with the Parkinson’s Foundation board appealing to you? Why are you so passionate about this role?
Abernathy: It’s very personal. My maternal grandfather (and my husband’s as well) had Parkinson’s, so for me there was a real connection to the organization and its mission. My grandfather passed away when I was a teenager, but the whole experience – and watching how it diminished the quality of life of someone who had been so active – has always stuck with me.
Another factor is that I am so impressed by the research the Parkinson’s Foundation has been involved in, the grant opportunities, as well as the organization’s attention to improving the quality of life of those afflicted with a disease that doesn’t have a definitive cure. There are centers of excellence around the world that the Foundation has been involved in on the research side – to work with neurologists to find a cure but also to figure out what early signs and determinants are, what can be done to slow the progression of the disease, and how to encourage people who have it to remain active. We’ve got to continue to push for funding and research for people who are making a difference for individuals with Parkinson’s and who are at risk.
So it’s an exciting time for me to get involved. I really look forward to bringing my experience with previous board work and with the Witt/Kieffer Board Services practice, in support of the mission and exceptional work that is taking place.
What stands out to you about the Parkinson’s Foundation as an organization?
Abernathy: A number of things. Many people may not know that the foundation is the result of a merger just two years ago [between the National Parkinson Foundation and Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, both of which were founded in 1957], so there are more resources and more opportunities for coordinated efforts behind key initiatives aimed at up to 10 million people worldwide who live with the disease.
Also, it’s just a very strong organization. I was impressed with the board members currently serving, and CEO John Lehr and the management team stood out. There is a passion and commitment to the organization that is impressive.
What makes a great nonprofit board member in this day and age? Are the skills dramatically different than those for corporate boards?
Abernathy: It’s all about commitment, passion for the cause. And it is about experience, expertise, and the willingness and the desire to serve others. Although their primary role is to govern, really good board members know how to make suggestions at the highest level but understand that their role is not to operate. As board members, a lot of what we bring to the table is our own networks and ability to help the staff in terms of connecting with others in the industry, having your rolodex that allows you to make connections and bring expertise to the table. Your role is to make sure you’re great stewards of the organization but your job is not to run it.
Finally, what advice do you have for other executives and professionals who wish to serve on a board of directors?
Abernathy: Number one, identify your own personal passion and areas of interest. If there’s a cause or nonprofit that you appreciate, focus on how you can participate in their activities, meeting people and networking along the way. It needs to be something you’re an advocate for, passionate about, because it does take time.
On that note, think about the time commitment and make sure you have the capacity. Once you commit, you commit. In other words, it’s not something you can just try out or dabble in.
Finally, be ready to learn. These are positions that are part of your networking but also helping you to build your future opportunities. For instance, not-for-profit boards are terrific learning grounds for people who also want to get into corporate boards. When you first join any board it is about learning, meeting the staff, participating in on-boarding, and immersing yourself in the organization. In your first few meetings, you may not have a lot to contribute, but that’s okay. You want to get the lay of the land so that you can make more of an impact as time goes along.
About the Author
Jena Abernathy is managing partner/chair of Board Services, senior partner, Healthcare, and serves on the Witt/Kieffer’s board of directors.