Q&A: Looking Back with Board Member Bill Choi

Tuesday, January 20, 2015 (All day)

As the Community Partners board of directors enters a new era with board member terms and limits on maximum years of service, our long-time and highly valued board member Bill Choi, a founding partner in the law firm of Rodriguez, Horii, Choi & Cafferata LLP and a specialist in nonprofit practice, will exit the board after nine years of service. I sat down with Bill recently to reflect on his leadership, his experience on our board, and what he sees for the future of Community Partners.

Paul Vandeventer: Your history with Community Partners dates back even before you joined the board. Can you talk a little about that?

Bill Choi: I knew about Community Partners through my friend and eventual law partner Al Rodriguez [one of the founders of Community Partners, now deceased]. I remember hearing about this organization he was starting to help incubate new nonprofit projects – that’s pretty much all I knew about it early on. Once Al and I started our firm, I knew Community Partners as a resource where we could send occasional clients who wanted to start an active program. I know that starting Community Partners served as a model and inspiration for Al to start our law firm.

PV: What changed at the point of joining the board in 2005, when you moved from outsider to steward?

BC: As a steward, a person with a fiduciary duty, you have a responsibility to know the organization better, more in-depth…I think I also grew during that period as a lawyer in my field – understanding fiscal sponsorship better, and the different facets of it. That was partly because of my role at Community Partners but also because fiscal sponsorship was growing as a field, and becoming more relevant. I’d say these two things converged…and sort of forced me to understand the field better and that, of course, enabled me to understand Community Partners better.

PV: What were the satisfactions that went alongside a deepened knowledge of the organization?

BC: There’s the obvious satisfaction of giving back – working as a volunteer, working as a board member, imparting knowledge that I’ve gained over the years to help this enterprise succeed. And the success of this enterprise meant that we were helping a whole bunch of other social enterprises succeed. So that was very cool for me…

PV: So one bit of advice has many ripples on the water?

BC: Exactly, exactly. It’s also satisfying in the sense that it brought me into contact with a whole bunch of different social enterprises and people. It was very satisfying to work with one entity – but within one entity to see so much of what’s going on in LA with respect to social enterprises.

PV: Even though you’d never chaired a board before, the fact that you’d had the experience of serving on so many other boards in so many different settings gave me, as CEO, a level of confidence that you really did know what you were doing…What was that experience like?

BC: First, I knew I had to prepare a lot more (laughs). Really, I did know that once I became chair of the board for two years, that just the level of preparation prior to meetings, the level of engagement and involvement, even outside of meetings, would be a whole different ballgame. That was a big change and one I found both challenging and interesting. I was also trying to be more of a leader within the organization in the effort any leader has to focus people on moving together in a particular direction.

PV: I remember the point you made to me when we were proposing board terms, a change from the yearly election of board members. I remember you made a strategic decision to back away from the subject for a while. What was going on at that point?

BC: I like to have consensus on a decision like that…We spent time trying to build it, thought we had reached consensus and it turned out we didn’t. So I decided that rather than forcing a vote and getting a split decision, it was better to pull it off the agenda and wait to build greater awareness of the importance of making the shift then trying again when people had better insight and information.

PV: I remember learning from you, in that moment, how to graciously back away. You have this great ability to read a room and the sensitivity to know when an issue needs to percolate a little bit more…That was a great thing for me to learn as a leader. You don’t always have to engage the fight. It taught me to slow down a bit more.

BC: I’m flattered that you would say that it was a conscious moment where you learned something from me. I remember going through that and I remember backing off and feeling at the time that it was the most natural thing to do, and the right thing to do. And as I talk to you about it, I know I learned it from other great board chairs of other great orgs that I’ve been a part of and have represented professionally. I’ve sat in on many board meetings and I’ve seen lots of great board members handle situations like this and I think that, sort of by osmosis, it must have just sunk in.

PV: What are the two or three most pointed things that you’d want to share if you were to now advise one of your clients stepping into a board chair role?

BC: Not sure if I can narrow it down to just two or three things. I’d want to share, really, all the things I learned serving as a board member, the things that would help that person serve an organization better. They might be as mundane or practical as keeping the meetings running smoothly, to bigger picture concerns like working to find consensus among members of the board. I think I also learned a lot about working with the CEO, and the staff. I give a lot of talks about the proper role for board members – how to manage, but not micro-manage, how to maintain clear lines between staff and board.

PV: I found synchronicity between the time you served as the board chair and what I now see as a kind of peak experience for our organization, and for my role as CEO. How would you characterize the culture of this board, compared to the culture of other boards with which you’ve shared your time?

BC: Yes, I felt it was rather ideal. It was really sort of the model way a board should function and how a board should function with staff, as well as how a nonprofit organization should function – which seemed appropriate given Community Partners’ role, and its role in the community. The board was engaged, people had read the materials and were prepared to discuss and vote on things. I don’t know that anyone ever felt intimidated about expressing their views.

PV: Looking out over the horizon and thinking about the future of the organization…what do you hope to see unfold over the next three to five years?

BC: I would hope that Community Partners would continue to excel in and grow the core part of the mission, which is fiscal sponsorship of civic and social projects, helping project leaders be successful. I would hope there would be not just growth in numbers, but also in the diversity of projects that are going to be impactful for this whole region. I’d also like to see Community Partners grow its other business areas – consulting, knowledge sharing and program office partnerships with grantmakers, not to mention the other work we’re doing with players throughout the state.

PV: What changes have you seen within the nonprofit sector and/or those coming to Community Partners’ door during the years you’ve been in the field as an attorney and involved on the board?

BC: From my perspective, both from here and outside the organization, one big change is this growing interest in a more entrepreneurial philanthropy. It’s the social venture idea of making money while doing good. The biggest part of the challenge that I see is that the government and the tax code, the tax laws, haven’t really kept up. And so we’re looking at what people are trying to do in 2015 and the guidance we have might be from 1975.

Another change I’ve seen is a growing interest in advocacy. Social change leaders have seen that charitable dollars can only go so far; they now understand that they have to impact the hearts and minds of people out there to bring about the changes they want to see. And while there are restrictions, there are also many ways that charities and foundations can impact public policy decisions. I think we’ll see more of that in coming years.

And that means Community Partners has an important role to play. I don’t think you can close your eyes and ears and say we’re just going to be the traditional safe organization and stick just to what we’ve always done. I think Community Partners will need to continue to see what the trends are in the field and be able to address them. How will we advance the field and our communities otherwise?