From the classroom to the boardroom

Nonprofit Board Fellowship connects students and community organizations for leadership development

By Kevin Manne

Screenshot of a Nonprofit Board Fellows Zoom meeting.

MSW/MBA student Kelly Zaky’s only experience with a board of directors was when she worked as an entry-level employee at a nonprofit organization.

Pre-professional student Rowan Lindamood trains with Artistic Director Sergio Neglia at Neglia Ballet Artists. Photo: Rebecca Lindamood

“The term ‘the board’ was floated around in an often mysterious, untouchable way, so this was how boards lived in my mind,” she says.

So when Zaky was invited to join the School of Management’s new Nonprofit Board Fellowship (NBF) program, she wasn’t sure what to expect. 

Once she became part of the NBF program and partnered with Buffalo-based ballet organization Neglia Ballet Artists for her fellowship, Zaky found a network of people invested in educating and helping the next generation of board members and businesses thrive.  

“Behind the curtain, board members are just like anyone else: passionate individuals pursuing greatness for the things they care about,” she says.

A collaboration between the School of Management’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness and the school’s Career Resource Center, the NBF introduces MBA students to the intrinsic value of board service. Students participate in a foundational curriculum that blends the concepts of board governance, servant leadership, and diversity and inclusion with an academic year of service as nonvoting board members with local nonprofit organizations.

While the first class of fellows has had to adapt to a world gone virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic, they have contributed to organizations across the region through monthly board meetings, committee meetings and projects that make a direct impact.

Leading and learning

Horizon Health workers outside Terrace House, a facility that offers medically supervised withdrawal from substances such as opiates and alcohol.

Peter Farruggia, a JD/MBA student, was worried his summer would be wasted with nothing to show for it after COVID-19 brought so much of the world to a halt last year. But through the NBF program, he was able to advance his leadership skills while learning the inner workings of board governance at Horizon Health Services, a nonprofit that assists individuals and families struggling with substance abuse disorders and mental health issues. 

Farruggia says the program was one of the most enjoyable experiences he’s had in graduate school, and what he’s gained will be invaluable as he embarks on a Presidential Management Fellowship after graduation.

“One of the most important things I learned was the vast differences between nonprofits and their for-profit counterparts,” says Farruggia. “The board fellows program provides an outlet for those of us who want careers in nonprofits or public service and gives us critical training and experience.”

Other fellows have pitched in and advanced their leadership skills at a number of other Western New York nonprofits.

A participant in the WNY Women’s Foundation’s MOMs: From Education to Employment® initiative graduates from Jamestown Community College. 

At the WNY Women’s Foundation (WNYWF), PharmD/MBA student Victoria Getman assisted the organization as it advocated for day care for the children of single mothers so they could get back to work during the pandemic. 

“This program makes you more socially aware and takes you out of the college bubble,” she says. “Prior to joining WNYWF, I had been working with a woman who was struggling to find child care because schools were closed and both she and her husband were working full time. To learn that WNYWF was out there advocating was eye-opening, exciting and rewarding.”

Steven Gabriel, an MPH/MBA student, served on the board of the Service Collaborative of WNY, an organization that creates opportunities for people to serve their community through education, economic opportunity, youth development and volunteering. He also served on their committees for outreach and community engagement. 

He says the fellows learned from each other as much as they learned from the organizations they served and the speakers they connected with.

“We met with C-suite executives and international experts to discuss the meaning of servant leadership, how to ensure equity and how to create purpose in the nonprofit sector,” Gabriel says. “Each fellow brought a valuable and unique perspective on how to interpret these issues. This taught me that everyone has an important role to play on nonprofit boards. To quote one of our distinguished speakers, ‘You don't need to be an Olympic swimmer to get in the pool.’”

A new lens

School of Management MBAs weren’t the only ones to learn and grow through the Nonprofit Board Fellowship program—organizational leaders say the students brought specialized skills and unique perspectives to their boards. 

At the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, President and CEO Michael Weiner says MBA student Vignesh Kumar Swaminathan gave back to the organization in a number of ways.

“It was helpful to get insights from someone who has limited knowledge of our organization and who brings a unique younger perspective than may be represented on our board or staff,” says Weiner, MBA ’90. “Vignesh has a great background in research and data management, so we also found opportunities to take advantage of that skill set while he continues to learn about board governance.”

Megan Landreth, government relations director and legal counsel, worked closely with Peter Farruggia during his time at Horizon Health. She says their board found areas of interest for Farruggia to pitch in and help the organization thrive.

“Peter joined our Diversity Council, a group of about 15 staff members whose job is to talk about diversity issues as they relate to the organization, educate the staff and engage in planned activities,” says Landreth. “The council loved having an outside perspective on the work they’re doing, and it’s great to have an energetic, educated student who can share new and different ideas.”

The first NBF program concluded in May, and a new cohort began this summer. To learn more, visit