Raising Kids and Joining a Board of Trustees: Common Ground

By Elli Albert 

NJALA members say to me all the time, “Oh, I could never be president of NJALA.”  My response to them is always the same.  “Trust me, if I can do it, so can you!”

I often equate being president of a board of trustees to having children.  When I was expecting my first child, all I could think about was how I would ever be able to deal with a teenager!  I slowly realized something important.  Babies come out as infants, not as teenagers.  Raising a child is a cumulative process.  You learn things every day with your infant, who then becomes a child, who then becomes a teenager.  By the time children reach the teenage years, you have (usually) built up enough parenting skills to be ready for them and their challenges.  (I say that having survived the young adulthood of my two sons, now in their twenties!) 

Thinking about that cumulative knowledge, board service is no different. 

When you join an organization like NJALA, you are new, you are tentative, you don’t know how the organization works and you don’t know any of the people well.  Because your firm wants you to be involved, you muster up the courage to attend a meeting, and you are introduced to a few other nervous newbies like yourself.  Soon, you start to develop your own peer group in the association.  You register for more meetings, because the speaker was good and, hey, you got a free meal.  At some point, you may say to yourself, “Hmmm… I wouldn’t mind getting a teensy bit more involved. But just a little bit, because I have no time!”  You find the time, though, to volunteer on one of your organization’s committees, and you start to get a feel for how the operation is run.

Then what happens?  Someone from the nominating committee calls you up and asks you if you want to be nominated for the board of trustees.  You first recoil in horror as you remind yourself that you have NOTHING to add to this board, and you surely don’t have time for it.  But hey, they invited you, and they must know what they’re doing, so in a weak moment—and maybe following a glass of wine or two—you say to yourself, “What the heck!” and you decide that you might give it a shot.  After all, it’s only one year and then you can quit, right?  Right.

So now you’re on the board and starting to figure out the lay of the land.  You join another committee, and the next year you agree to return to the board, because, really, it wasn’t that bad.  In fact, it was a lot of fun.  And then, just like that, you are asked to chair a committee.  After a moment of panic, you accept, because it’s a committee you’ve worked on, and you pretty much know the drill.  Check another box.

The rest just kind of happens.  Assuming you are showing up to board meetings and performing your job on the board, you may one day be asked to be an officer.  Once again, the panic hits.  “How could I ever be an officer, or, worse, president?!”  Except just like my story about raising my kids, you aren’t jumping right in to presidency.  There are all kinds of positions in which to serve first.  So, you take another deep breath and you do it. 

In NJALA, you serve in one or more officer positions (secretary, treasurer, vice president of membership, vice president of programs), until one day, maybe, you are nominated for president.  By that time—lo and behold—you finally feel ready to take on the challenge.

And that’s exactly what happened to me.

I joined NJALA in 2000.  That same year, before I had even attended a single meeting, I won a scholarship to an ALA conference after winning an NJALA newsletter article-writing contest.  Following the conference, Barbara Jerchower (then a past president and editor of the newsletter) called and told me she heard that I wanted to volunteer on the newsletter committee.  I thought to myself, “I definitely did NOT volunteer to be on any committee,” but I said I’d show up for a meeting.  I stuck around for several years and ultimately became editor of the newsletter.  I was asked to be on the board around that same time.  I then became publicity chair.  I then left the board for a few years for personal reasons, but returned in 2015, feeling fully ready to “move up the ranks”.  I became chair of the chapter’s ALA Presidents’ Award of Excellence submission, as well as chair of all the various NJALA surveys that go out during the year.  I even served on the ALA Regional Nominating Committee.  A few years later, and BOOM.  I’m president.

See?  Anyone can do it.  I’m no different than any of you.  I didn’t have any special talents or a desire to serve on the board.  I manage a large office, and I somehow find the time.  It all just happened organically, the way it normally happens in organizations of this nature.

My advice to all of you is this: Volunteering your talents is a great thing.  Think about an interest area in NJALA where you might want to get involved.  Talk to board members about where they need help.  It just takes that first step.  In time, you’ll be amazed at how you’ll grow and how you can serve NJALA.

“I could never raise a teenager,” I first said.  “I could never be president of NJALA.”  Yet, here I am.

Elli Albert is the Office Administrator of the Morristown, New Jersey office of Fox Rothschild LLP.

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