Bringing a fresh perspective to nonprofits

Olin/United Way Board Fellows Program provides unique leadership experience to students

by Michele Berhorst  •  November 13, 2019

Allison Doerpinghaus, OTD/S ’20, reviews the board meeting agenda with Mark Keeley, St. Louis Arc’s chief executive officer.

 Christine Berg, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, is always in search of ways for the Program in Occupational Therapy to partner with local agencies so that students can engage with the St. Louis community. When she learned about the Olin/United Way Board Fellows Program offered through the Olin Business School at Washington University, she knew she wanted to offer this unique leadership experience to our students.

“The program places a student as a full voting board member on a nonprofit board of a United Way agency for one year. The student participates in United Way ‘Get on Board’ seminars, Olin School of Business Board Fellows orientation, and a course focused on occupational therapy’s role and board governance,” Berg explains. “They have an agency mentor and a board mentor, and together they select a program development project for the year.”

For her project, Allison Doerpinghaus, OTD/S ’20, chose to work with St. Louis Arc, whose mission is to empower people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families to lead better lives by providing a lifetime of high-quality services, family support and advocacy. Her project, which centers around diversity and inclusion, was initially identified by Mark Keeley, Arc’s chief executive officer, and key staff members.

“I am assisting the Arc in creating a committee that will address diversity and inclusion concerns within the agency and promote inclusive practices. I am also developing a pipeline program to educate and train individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to serve in leadership positions,” Doerpinghaus shares, after serving a year on the Arc Board. “As an occupational therapy student, I can bring a unique, client-centered and occupation-based perspective to the board. In meetings, I can ask questions that highlight these core values of occupational therapy — holistic, client-centered and occupation-based practice — to ensure that the wants and needs of all Arc participants are being represented and included in program development.”

Having formed partnerships with more than 100 St. Louis social service agencies, Berg has seen how the “occupational therapy lens” can bring a fresh, new perspective to a nonprofit organization. “Our goal has always been to help build capacity in program partners. We don’t come in and say, ‘You need this or that.’  We listen to what their needs are, match a need to our occupational therapy skill set, and then students collaboratively explore and develop a program to fill that need,” says Berg. “Through the Board Fellow Program, students have to listen, research and think critically to understand the specific issues that a board is grappling with. It helps students see the difference between an organizational approach and a direct service approach when trying to solve a problem.”

Doerpinghaus feels the skills she is learning will help her in future professional endeavors. “I’ve learned so much about leadership, communication and problem-solving, as well as how to manage a team of different personalities, backgrounds and opinions,” Doerpinghaus says. “I’m learning to share my occupational therapy point of view and to advocate for people the Arc serves.”

Rick Skinner, who runs the United Way’s Volunteer Center in St. Louis, hopes similar Board Fellow Programs emerge throughout the country. “This is basically a model for the nation to follow, and it’s great to know that these students are not only voting members of the board of directors, but they are making real inroads and making real impact to solve our communities’ most pressing issues. So whether it’s helping kids succeed or helping senior citizens, people with disabilities, or any type of health or human service activity needed in our region, students from WashU are making a difference,” Skinner says.

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