She may not have set out to be a matchmaker, but in recent years Joanie Friedman has become something of a South Side yenta, arranging marriages between the University of Chicago and the nonprofit arts and humanities organizations in its vicinity.
“I try to connect the resources of the University with the resources of the cultural landscape throughout the South Side,” says Friedman, senior program manager of the Southside Arts and Humanities Network: an initiative of the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago. Since 2011, she has done so through her organization’s Board Leadership Certificate Program, which recruits, trains and matches University staff, alumni and community members to serve on the boards of small, South Side arts or humanities organizations.
The program got its start in true grassroots fashion when some of the organizations in Friedman’s 150-member network approached her with a request. “They said, ‘We need a really big pool of highly trained individuals, eager and ready to serve on our boards,’” Friedman recalls. “I had a light-bulb moment. I thought, ‘Whoa! This is bigger than just one organization. This is a whole network of people and organizations who want to grow stronger.’”
Each year, the program selects 25 applicants to immerse themselves in 12 hours of training on how to become an effective board member, with sessions that explain nonprofit organizational structure and lifecycle, a board’s role in nonprofit development and fundraising, board fiduciary and legal responsibilities and more. The goal is that participants will find a match with one of the 10 nonprofits featured during the final session. In that session, referred to jokingly as “speed dating,” the arts and humanities organizations make presentations about themselves then mingle with participants so that both can learn more about each other.
It was during one of those "speed dating" sessions that participant Kennon Reinard met Oyekunle Oyegbemi, board president of the Yoruba Arts Foundation, which celebrates West African arts and culture. It was a match, right on the spot. “You’ve seen those cartoons where the eyes bug out in little hearts,” Reinard says with a laugh. “That was me. Joanie always calls it the love affair.”
Since becoming a Yoruba board member two and a half years ago, Reinard—communications director for Arts Alliance Illinois—has brought her communications know-how and her connections in the design world to help create a logo, business cards and a web site. She attends board meetings at least four times per year and helps the group organize events. “Besides bringing her connections and her expertise, she brings enthusiasm and follow-through,” says Oyegbemi. “She’s present and all-in.”
Participants like Reinard get something back, too. “As an arts professional, it gave me new contacts, new partner opportunities and new resources for shared learning,” Reinard says, noting that graduates of the program earn a certificate from the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies.
“I think of it as a wonderful professional development opportunity,” Friedman adds. “You get to take risks. You get to do things that maybe you don’t have the chance to do on a regular basis. It exposes you to a new network of cultural leaders.”
Amanda Norton had fundraised as a volunteer for several years before going through the certificate program but says her participation in it made her even better. “Successful fundraising has to do with channeling one’s own enthusiasm for a particular cause,” says Norton, communications director of the UChicago Crime Lab and the Urban Education Lab. “Even though I had been enthusiastic in the past, I learned how to be more effective.”
She’d encourage those with a passion for the arts and the time and skills to apply: “It’s perfect for those who think, ‘I’ve never been on a board, but I do have some talent and energy. I’d like to give my time if someone could teach me how to be good in that role.’”