I was one of the lucky people who had a female role model before I knew what that was. My first job in the financial world was working for a successful female stock broker at a regional New York Stock Exchange firm in Washington, D.C., in the mid-60s — a rare occurrence in what is still a male-dominated world. She taught me many things that guided me throughout my career. One of the most useful pieces of advice she gave me was that since we earned a living from the people in the community, it was incumbent on us to give back in some way to that community.
Over the years, I have followed her advice and have derived immense satisfaction from my volunteer work. It feels good to make a difference and to help others less fortunate than we are. As advisers, nonprofit boards welcome us as members because of our financial expertise.
My first nonprofit activity was serving on the board of the Boy Scouts council in our area, one of the largest in the country. You might ask why I chose the Boy Scouts. Well, they were looking for women on their board, they met every other month a block from my office and I knew they trained youth to meet certain standards. After serving on the board for a while I learned that theirs was a very efficient organization and the staff members were truly dedicated. Furthermore, I was pleased to find out that the other people on the board were responsible. Many of them were former Scouts, and if they said they would do something they actually did it — something not true of all nonprofit board members!
I also served on the national board of Reading Is Fundamental, which is dedicated to motivating young children to read. And I serve on the board of the D.C. Police Foundation, which helps the police finance projects not in the D.C. budget, like a gym for the police as well as a training facility.
My real passion over the past 20 years has been serving on the board of the Foundation for Financial Planning, which helps people gain control of their financial lives with the assistance of pro bono financial planners. We work primarily with families of the military as they return from overseas, as well as families of cancer victims.
Over the years, my volunteer work has been immensely satisfying. It exposes me to people I wouldn't meet in my work and enables me to move out of my daily routine. However, I do have some advice for people who would like to maximize their time on nonprofit boards.
First, focus on a few charities where you can have an impact. I have seen people go on too many boards and then not do a good job at any of them.
Second, pick a charity you care about, not just to get business. You may or may not get business from your board, but first you have to earn their trust.
Third, ask to see the financials. You need to know they are financially sound and if they are producing timely statements. You don't want to give your time and energy to a group that is shaky.
Fourth, if you agree to do a job for them, do it. This way you can build the respect of your fellow board members, which can lead to eventual business.
Fifth, it used to be that you were expected to give either time or money. Nowadays you are expected to give both. When you are approached to join a board, ask how much time and money they expect from you, and whatever the answer is, double it!
Sixth, find out if the board is an active one or if you just attend board meetings and listen to reports from the staff. My personal preference is to be on a board that has input into the strategic direction of the group.
(Related read: 2015 InvestmentNews Women to Watch)
We are fortunate to be in a profession in which we are financially rewarded. I believe it is important for us to share some of our success by giving back.
Alexandra Armstrong is chairwoman and founder of Armstrong, Fleming & Moore Inc.