For someone interested in how organizations make decisions, MBA student Tariq Nanji had a dream assignment: spend six months as a working member of the board of a top-tier non-profit.
His opportunity came last fall in his second year at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management when, in a new elective course, he and nine other MBA students were paired with local non-profits. The students received mentoring and hands-on exposure to board-level decision-making while the non-profits received strategic advice on a topic relevant to them.
The Rotman OnBoard Fellows Program, which wrapped up its first year this spring, was such a hit with student and non-profit participants that the school plans to expand to 15 pairings this September.
"Business schools for the most part do a great job at case analysis," says Neel Joshi, director of student life and international experience at Rotman. "We wanted to bring students outside of the classroom and not just talk about leadership skills but actually put them in the pool and give them a couple of tools to help them swim."
Second-year MBA students were screened by Rotman and interviewed by their non-profit partners.
For Mr. Nanji, his stint as a non-voting member of the board of trustees at the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction became the "highlight" of his final year. "Any opportunity to learn from people who are very experienced with governance would be a great opportunity and it turned out to be that way."
CAMH was a willing partner, but vice-president legal services and general counsel Kristin Taylor concedes she was initially skeptical, fearing little upside in taking on a student.
That's not how it turned out.
Mr. Nanji arrived shortly after a governance review by CAMH led to a new policy to recruit trustees based on skills, not just advocacy of mental health and addiction issues.
After discussions with Ms. Taylor and board of trustees chair Kelly Meighen, both mentors for Mr. Nanji, he was asked to report on ways to expand the pool of future nominees.
"It was something I would have been doing on the side of my desk without the expertise and resources we were able to bring to this," says Ms. Taylor. She and Ms. Meighen served as go-to coaches, meeting Mr. Nanji every two weeks or so to monitor progress.
Aided by Rotman faculty, Mr. Nanji sought advice from the school's Clarkson Centre for Business Ethics and Board Effectiveness and tapped the Maytree Foundation's DiverseCity project that identifies highly-qualified visible minorities as board candidates. He had unfettered access to senior CAMH managers, who provided key information for his report.
Over several months, Mr. Nanji developed a screening mechanism for the board to identify skills gaps and recruit nominees. He also prepared interview questions for prospective candidates.
"He formalized and professionalized the process," says Ms. Meighen. "We [now] knew what we wanted but we also knew what that want had to have." The new strategy identified 85 potential candidates, marking a tenfold increase in nominees from diverse backgrounds compared to past efforts.
For students, direct exposure to seasoned non-profit executives and top civic and business leaders was an eye-opener.
"It was definitely nerve-racking walking in on the first day," recalls Rachel Kattapuram, studying law and business at Rotman, of joining the board of SickKids Foundation. "Industry giants are on the board."
With foundation chief operating officer Robin Cardozo as a mentor, Ms. Kattapuram wrapped up her time at SickKids with a 90-minute presentation to foundation officials on "next frontier" moves to reach multicultural donors, improve transparency of financial reporting and beef up exposure on social media.
"The timing was very good for us," says Mr. Cardozo, with Ms. Kattapuram's research feeding into a strategic plan under development by the foundation. As a veteran mentor, Mr. Cardozo saw value in a relationship that offered mutual benefits.
"It was definitely not a make-work project by any stretch of the imagination," he says. "It was a piece of work that we had wanted to do and did not have the internal resources to do it."
At the National Ballet of Canada, executive director Barry Hughson had no hesitation in taking in a student.
"Mentorship matters," says the former executive director of the Boston Ballet. "It is part of our responsibility as leaders, when possible, to support the next generation of leadership."
In Ramin Wright, Mr. Hughson got an unexpected bonus – a National Ballet subscriber who had taken up dance while an undergraduate at Queen's University in Kingston.
Mr. Wright, who recently graduated from Rotman with degrees in business and law, was impressed by the ballet's business-like focus. "He [Mr. Hughson] whisked me off to a subcommittee meeting of the board of directors on my very first day. It was pretty exciting."
Real-life exposure to the internal workings of established organizations gave students a lesson in humility, such as recognizing what size of project could be delivered in six months.
With Mr. Hughson as mentor, Mr. Wright pared his ambitious ideas to focus on a topic that mattered to the ballet: trends in corporate giving to cultural organizations.
"It is an area where we are focused on improving and evolving," says Mr. Hughson. "This was an opportunity to have someone dig into the data and look at our performance against our peers."
With entrees to cultural non-profits across North America provided by his mentor, Mr. Wright prepared a report that showed banks, lawyers and consultants, surprisingly more so than luxury fashion and travel companies, are top donors.
While with the ballet board, Mr. Wright says he gained insight on communicating with top-tier managers and volunteers. For his final presentation, he had to distill his findings to make them meaningful to the board's directors. "They need to understand it quickly to make a decision on it," he says.
A similar aha moment came for Mr. Nanji while on the CAMH board.
In preparation for a final report to the trustees, he made a presentation to a board subcommittee and later received coaching from Ms. Taylor.
"She sat me down with my final presentation and we went through the whole thing together," he recalls, with additional support from Ms. Meighen and CAMH chief executive officer Catherine Zahn. "That was quite sophisticated on their end and they took the time for it," he says.
In the end, Ms. Taylor says Mr. Nanji's polished presentation to the trustees left her "immensely proud."