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In the Community: W&L’s Denny Garvis Provides Social Enterprise Workshops for Nonprofits

What started as a teaching tool and an annual checklist for local non-profit leaders has grown into a series of social enterprise workshops for both executive directors and board members to stay current on governance best practices.

In its fifth year, Denny Garvis’ Annual Tune-Up Workshops for Social Enterprises: Required and Recommended Practices for Non-Profit Board Governance are highly popular, free sessions, held each summer and attended by dozens of local and regional non-profit directors and board members.

For Garvis, a professor of business administration at Washington and Lee University who was a practicing attorney before he transitioned to teaching, the workshops are a natural extension of his research on topics that straddle law and business, such as corporate governance and social enterprises. The current workshops, targeted specifically to leaders of non-profit organizations, evolved from an earlier corporate governance program. The focus on non-profits allows Garvis to serve the community in a unique way and to have a significant, positive impact on many different organizations.

“I’ve served on a number of local boards over the years, and found myself having to say no to many organizations due to time constraints,” said Garvis. “Offering these workshops allows me to serve and connect with a lot of groups at one time without over-committing.”

In addition to providing a service to the community, the workshops also offer a summer research opportunity for W&L undergraduate or law students. Garvis hires one student each summer to research, develop and co-present that year’s programs. The student’s experience begins in a seminar-like setting, discussing topics and core materials. The student then researches the issues and tailors the workshops to the specific challenges organizations are facing, so while the format is the same, the topics change each year.

“It’s a great experience for an undergraduate student interested in law school,” said Garvis. “There can be curriculum connections, as well, if the student is in the poverty studies program, as it can also combine working with a community organization.”

Typical attendees are directors and board members of preschools, day cares, various arts groups, Hospice and social services organizations such as United Way, RARA, RATS and Community Table. While most attendees are from Lexington and Rockbridge County, there are often a handful of regional attendees from Staunton and Covington.

Garvis describes the sessions as “low key, old-school” workshops. The executive sessions cover legal and regulatory issues, board composition and dynamics, trends and current issues. The sessions also serve as a forum where the directors can share resources and ideas and as a closed group where they can communicate openly. According to Garvis, the directors have established a trust amongst themselves that enables open dialogue and great conversation.

The workshops are extremely popular with a number of executive directors, who make it a point to attend each year. “I go to these seminars for a couple of reasons,” said Stephanie Wilkinson, executive director of Main Street Lexington. “It’s the most efficient way to get information on best practices for non-profits; it’s obviously cost-effective, since they’re free of charge; and possibly most importantly, it’s a safe space for those of us in the local non-profit world to get together and share the challenges and questions that inevitably arise with when you work with a board.”

Garvis continues to offer the workshops each year because he consistently gets great feedback and regular attendance. “People learn something new every year,” he said. “And I enjoy the ongoing, year-round personal connection to a variety of organizations. It’s interesting, fun and gratifying.”

“I’ve attended three years in a row,” said Wilkinson, “and I leave every time with new ideas and a new determination to make our board as good as it can possibly be.

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