BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Editor’s Note: This week we begin our series on leadership, focusing on what a group of committed philanthropists and volunteers can accomplish.
Two presidents of the Rush Woman’s Board and its benefit chair share what it takes to pull off an extraordinary event. Even though the gala, to be held at the Art Institute October 19, is called an Evening of Whimsy, there’s nothing whimsical about their efforts.
Benefit Chair Samantha Schwalm, current President Debra Beck, and President-elect Cindy Nicolaides, explain how their teamwork, and that of their benefit committee, will raise funds for diverse educational and mentoring programs for high school and college-age students in west side neighborhoods.
Knowing you three, Evening of Whimsy isn’t a last-minute project. Tell us how you build a benefit.
Samantha: I signed on to An Evening of Whimsy two years ago. The work for me started the day after Glow, our 2017 event. The months began with selecting the venue first—there was a strong desire to host the event at the same place as Glow—securing sponsors, and selecting the theme. The theme took a while but finally An Evening of Whimsy was selected.
I wanted to transform the Art Institute into an intimate setting that reflected this idea of whimsy, allowing us to have fun twists and turns throughout.
Debra: The final weeks before an event are always busy. At the moment, we are finalizing all of the details and preparing to welcome our guests October 19.
You three have reputations for being innovative leaders who listen, and support others. How do you describe leadership?
S: To me, a leader is someone who guides people in their choices, allowing them to make their own path (even if it is not necessarily your path) while giving them the support they need to be successful. I also think a leader is someone that takes on a task, makes it her own, and rallies everyone to stand behind it and to make it successful.
D: I think of leadership as a combination of listening and collaboration. A leader needs to know what is important to the organization; to work with members in developing and prioritizing the organization’s goals and objectives; and to partner with members, leaders, and staff members to make those goals a reality.
How do you ensure that your board thrives and most members are very committed?
D: Communication and participation are essential to maintaining a dynamic board. Our members are very committed—we meet frequently, we have a regular schedule of newsletters and updates, and we strive to have all of our members involved on at least one committee. Our members also participate in selecting the programs that the Board funds each year.
How is a board a force in the community?
D: Our members are dedicated to helping others, and they work hard to have an impact on the lives of Rush’s patients and to make a difference in the neighborhoods near the Medical Center.
Whether they are raising funds for major initiatives at the Medical Center; organizing book, clothing, and diaper drives; or participating in outreach activities, they truly are a force in the community!
Every leader has different skill sets. How do you insure that transition from Debra to Cindy goes smoothly?
D: Cindy and I met when I joined the Woman’s Board ten years ago, and we’ve worked together a few projects over the years, but this transition is our most significant collaboration. We meet frequently to discuss the Board’s initiatives, operations, and priorities. It has been wonderful to work with Cindy during the past six months as she prepares for her next role. She is a talented and experienced member of the Board and an exceptional leader. The Woman’s Board is very fortunate to have her as our next president!
Cindy: One of the most important aspects of the transition is all of the institutional knowledge that Debra has learned over the last two years. While it is not possible to download everything, Debra and I have been meeting regularly since last spring so that she can bring me up to speed. Debra has done a fabulous job at communicating all of the opportunities and any challenges the Board faces, and is always accessible for any questions I have as we plan our future.
In addition, the Woman’s Board has a long range planning committee. The women on this committee have been past leaders on the Board and support the president with their vision and knowledge.
One of the great responsibilities of a board is to encourage and train new leaders. How do you go about doing this, both in terms of the board and the benefit committee?
S: I feel that through chairing various events, you to learn about the inner workings of the Board and various committees. Taking on leadership roles allow you to see how all of the Board’s committees are connected and work together.
C: The Woman’s Board has over 25 standing committees, most with both a chair and vice chair. New board members are asked to become a vice chair of these committees, allowing new members to meet other women on the Board and to learn about the organization. All committee chairs are then also on the Executive Committee, which really provides an excellent overview of the entire organization. As women get more involved with the Woman’s Board, they are asked to take on increasingly important roles. This strategy has worked well for us.
D: Our members have significant professional and volunteer leadership experience when they join. Right away, new members utilize their skills and experience by serving on the Benefit and Medical Center committees that are of interest to them. As they take on leadership roles, members work with our officers and staff members so they have the information and support they need to be successful in their positions.
Your mission entails community projects of great merit that demand results that make a difference. What do you like best about this opportunity?
S: I love knowing that the money we raise goes directly to the principal project every year. In REACH’s case, we can see the kids grow and learn through mentors and internships. Supporting these students, giving them the resources to be successful and stay in school until they have that college degree, and helping them network to get the job they want after they graduate is rewarding!
C: Rush University Medical Center is committed to improving the lives of the people in the communities we serve. The Woman’s Board has been instrumental in helping further this mission. We are passionate about all projects we take on, and our work continues: next year we are focusing on raising money for Rush Community Service Initiative Program. This program will provide funding for 1,500 Rush University students to provide services to the more that 10,000 west side community members annually.
D: As Cindy and Sam mentioned, it is wonderful to see the positive impact that the Woman’s Board has on individuals and in the community. It is also rewarding to work with the Medical Center’s staff members on these initiatives—they are very passionate about Rush and the work they do!
Volunteering changes pretty fast these days in terms of technology and other tools we use to connect with membership. How does technology replace having meetings and bringing people together?
S: As a board we work on having meetings at various locations and times. This allows all of our members, working or stay-at-home, to have a chance to attend meetings. We also have conference calls to allow people to be able to work from anywhere.
D: We hold many in-person meetings at Rush. Our membership draws from the entire Chicago area, so the Medical Center is a natural gathering place. Being at the hospital also affords our members the opportunity to learn about Rush’s exceptional medical care, research, and community outreach efforts and allows them to forge a meaningful connection with the institution and its staff.
Technology is an also important element of our operation: we hold virtual meetings via email and have conference calls, of course, and we text, email, and use social media too—whatever it takes to get the job done!
C: The Woman’s Board is a ‘life board.’ As such, we have members that have been involved for more than 50 years. Many of those women do not spend all of the year within the Chicago area. In addition, a number of our members work either part- or full-time. So, we use technology as a tool to keep everyone connected. This is achieved primarily though accessing the website for information and through conference calls. But we still have many in-person meetings because we like each other and want to see each other when possible!
Describe the Gala and how you weave the theme throughout.
S: From the time people enter the event through Columbus Drive, there will be whimsical elements throughout. The theme is carried through food items and drink specials, bringing the invitation to life.
We want guests to truly enjoy themselves. To ensure this, we are having all of the announcements during the cocktail hour—guests will have an uninterrupted dinner to enjoy their friends and guests in Griffin Court.
Then, the party continues back in the Trading Room with live music from Indigo. We are also having a Young Professionals ticket for ages 21 to 35 to join the party for cocktails, appetizers, and dancing.
Can you give us a sense of the larger picture: what is the meaning behind the Gala?
D: In addition to being a fun gathering, An Evening of Whimsy is also an occasion to introduce our friends to the Rush Education and Career Hub (REACH). REACH is a career development program focused on providing students the support they need to achieve career success in the healthcare sector. Through college readiness programming, mentoring, and internships, REACH students will be prepared for these careers. The Woman’s Board gift of $450,000 will make this programming available to three additional high schools on Chicago’s west side.
How do you work with the team members on the project, such as event planner Steve Valenti?
S: It was wonderful to work with committee members to help bring in excitement for the party. They each have unique ideas and thoughts to help bring the theme to life!
Working with Steve Valenti, in full disclosure, was my idea. His vision and insight on how to help each guest have a wonderful and fun experience is invaluable. I love how direct and insightful he is when planning a party—he understands what will work and what won’t. Steve has helped to design a party that allows the invitation to come to life.
No one has a better reputation, thriving for so many years, of terrific fundraisers welcoming lots of people who learn firsthand of Rush’s message. This year alone you began this all-new event (replacing the fashion show), were personally involved in this important project at the hospital, and welcomed Madeleine Albright at a sold-out luncheon, all while raising significant funds. Tell us about what you want most for the Evening of Whimsy in terms of results?
S: Obviously, we would like to raise the $450,000 we have committed to REACH. On top of that, we would also like our guests to enjoy themselves. This is to be an evening all will remember and look forward to attending in future years. I would love guests to walk away and say, ‘That was such a fun night! I cannot wait for next year!’
How do you think you will be feeling when the evening of the event comes?
S: I know, personally, I will feel nervous, excited to see our thoughts and plans come to life, and a little bit relieved that everything is over. I hope I take some advice that I did the evening of my wedding: take a moment to breathe and look around; to watch all that was created for this evening and everyone enjoying themselves!
D: The night of the event will be exciting. It’s fun to see a project that has been in the works for a year or more come to life. Sam and her committee have done an extraordinary job—it’s going to be a spectacular evening!
For significant decades, the Rush Woman’s Board has been one of Chicago’s philanthropic success stories, and we congratulate them for their innovation, flexibility, and hands-on service. We wish Sam, Debra, and Cindy all the joys of whimsy and thank them for sharing advice on leadership.
For more information, visit thewomansboard.org.