CADD CORNER: SDSU Board Fellows Program: Developing the Next Generation of Leaders



By Melinda Hohman, Ph.D.

The recent workforce study commissioned by NASW indicated that over a third (35.6%) of the recent social work graduates currently work in non-profit organization (NPO) settings with the majority (92%) in all work settings providing direct or clinical services (Salsbury, Quigley, Acquaviva, Wyche, & Sliwa, 2018). Across California, NPOs employ over a million people, and the demand for their services, and social work practitioners, continues to rise (Deitrick, 2014; Deitrick, Schmitz, Lam, Trull, & Tinkler, 2016).

NPOs are usually led by an Executive Director and are overseen by a Board of Directors who often have varied backgrounds. Their task is to provide general governance as well as play a critical role in guiding the direction, future, and sustainability of their organization. Most board members serve for a term of three years or less. Research has found that many are not adequately prepared for this role nor have a thorough understanding of the NPO and its mission (Larcker, Donatiello, Meehan, & Tayan, 2015).

Boards also tend to lack diversity but increasingly are seeing the need to have the perspectives of younger and diverse members. As older members term out, however, there is often difficulty in finding younger, prepared replacements (Board Source, 2015). Board Fellows programs are offered in universities across the US to fill this gap. Interestingly, they are most often housed in MBA programs and are designed to prepare graduate students for board positions by developing skills in leadership, strategic planning, and operational issues with the overall goal of being responsible community members.

Given that many of these skills are also considered macro social work skills and due to the pressing need for social workers to be prepared for roles on NPO boards, the San Diego State University School of Social Work along with the Fowler College of Business collaboratively developed a Board Fellows program which was launched in the Fall 2017. Our initial class of eight  MSW students and six MBA students are assigned in pairs to NPOs in the San Diego region (currently all human services agencies). They attend all Board meetings as non-voting members and design and implement a project that will benefit the NPO. Fellows meetings are held twice a semester to receive lectures and materials about board governance and to discuss students’ various experiences. Fellows gain tangible nonprofit management and board governance experience, while concurrently bringing valuable business/social work management skills to the nonprofit sector.  They also learn from each other due to the interprofessional approaches to NPO issues. Currently students receive no credit for this work; it is above and beyond their current field internships (students are not placed at their field site either). Most work about 4-6 hours a month as a Fellow. Both Administration and Direct Practice MSW students participate.

A recent survey of the students indicated high satisfaction with the experience and the program. Two students wrote:

“I found it really, really valuable to learn from my MBA counterpart and his perspective and approach. This was really valuable to finding our collaborative flow and team approach. It has been the best learning so far. I also enjoyed learning about the agency’s approach to finance and their use/training of board members in conjunction with staff in using the Benevon fundraising model. These very specific tactics and approaches have been insightful.” —MSW student

“It has been a wonderful experience to work with the CEO, board members, and staff. I have already learned so much. The macro social work theories and principles that we learn in class are directly relevant to what I am experiencing/observing through this program. This opportunity has expanded my understanding of what MSWs are capable of and motivates my future goals.”–MSW student

SDSU places a high priority on community partnerships and we are proud of this collaborative endeavor. We are currently recruiting students and more NPOs as we seek to expand the program due to demand.

For more information about the Board Fellows program, visit:



BoardSource, (2015). Leading with intent: A national index of nonprofit board practices. Washington, DC: BoardSource.

Deitrick, L. (2014). Causes count: The economic power of California’s nonprofit sector. San Diego, CA: Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research, University of San Diego.

Deitrick, L., Schmitz, H., Lam, M., Trull, C., & Tinkler, T. (2016). Annual report: State of nonprofits and philanthropy in San Diego. San Diego, CA: Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research, University of San Diego.

Larcker, D. F., Donatiello, N. E., Meehan, B., & Tayan, B. (2015). The 2015 survey on board of directors of nonprofit organizations. Menlo Park, CA: Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

Salsbury, E., Quigley, L., Acquaviva, K., Wyche, K., & Sliwa, S. (2018). New social workers: Results of the nationwide survey of 2017 social work graduates. Washington, DC: The George Washington University Health Workforce Institute.