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How to Turn a Passion into Community Leadership

Community Leadership

April 22, 2024

We’re fortunate that Greater Des Moines (DSM) is a generous community. At Bankers Trust, we talk a lot about how being a community bank means giving back to our community — and that doesn't just mean with the bank's dollars. Our employees are known for their generosity and making our community a better place. That is one of the things that attracted me to joining the bank nearly 10 years ago. Since then, I continue to be impressed every day by our team members who volunteer more than 30 hours each year, collectively donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the United Way annual campaign and serve on 100+ nonprofit boards and committees.

Often, when I'm talking with someone who is interested in becoming more involved in the community, they bring up the topic of joining a board and ask how to get started. If you've had a similar thought, perhaps you will find the following tips and insights useful.

Explore Your Passions

A good way to discover what you are passionate about is to first try a lot of different things. Get to know several nonprofits by attending their events, volunteering, reaching out to their Executive Directors or joining a working committee. Once you know which nonprofit(s) you feel aligned with and passionate about, share your desire to continue serving the organization in a leadership role. This provides a natural opening for discussing the process for joining their board.

Work + Play

When I first began joining boards, I got to do a lot of fun things, such as provide ideas, plan events and fundraising. What I didn’t expect was how many tough decisions would also be involved. For example, hiring a new Executive Director and helping turn a nonprofit’s budget around were much more difficult and time-consuming. Those experiences taught me that when you have passion for an organization and truly understand its mission and the good work it does, it’s easier to throw yourself behind both the fun and difficult work that needs to be done.

Consider Personal Connections

Personally, I've discovered the organizations I'm most passionate about are the ones I have a history or connection with. When I was a young professional, I was involved in many, many organizations. Then in about 2005, I was given the advice to commit more deeply with just one or two to make a more meaningful impact. At that time, I chose the Des Moines Community Playhouse and Drake University. I selected these two organizations because I believe I wouldn't be where I am today without my experiences with them earlier in my life.

As a child, I first experienced the Playhouse through my father who acted in several productions. I have vivid memories of him as Captain Hook, Atticus Finch, Ebenezer Scrooge and other strong leads. While I was never a leading actress, I was honored to perform in several shows while growing up. Now three generations of my family have acted on that same stage, as my youngest son has also appeared in several productions. We have all learned key leadership lessons from this involvement, and a few that still help me to this day include:

  • The confidence to collaborate with people you don't know
  • The experience of creating something magical for others
  • The ability to learn quickly and correctly, while always ready to adapt and be flexible
  • And finally, how to let yourself be vulnerable in front of others

Photo Caption: Can you find me in this photo from my scrapbook? I’m second row on the left, behind Tiny Tim drinking a soda, playing Belinda Cratchit in A Christmas Carol at the Des Moines Community Playhouse circa 1985.

The second organization I chose to give back to with more fervor was Drake University. It is where I earned my undergrad and master's degrees, met my husband, was aligned with meaningful internships, met lifelong friends and eventually even taught a few classes as an Adjunct Professor. I know I wouldn't have the job I'm in now without Drake and the education and experiences it provided.

Photo Caption: One of my many pictures with Drake University’s live mascot.

Focus + Goals

My important connections to both organizations, and years of service, allowed me to later serve in leadership roles on their boards and align the giving of my time and dollars accordingly. This also helped me to say "no thank you" to other organizations when I was asked to be on their boards because I knew I was giving all I could to these two causes I am truly passionate about.

Besides passion, when it comes to community involvement, what is your goal? Is it to help others, develop a network, get to know a new community or gain leadership skills? Whatever your reason, go into the exploration phase with this in mind to ensure the opportunity will meet your goals.

What to Expect

When you are considering joining a board, it's important to ask about board member expectations. Most organizations have set expectations, including in most cases:

  • Volunteer time
  • A leadership donation — likely $1,000 or more annually
  • Active participation in board meetings and events
  • Governance — oversight of the organization's finances and programs
  • Advocacy
  • Opening doors and making connections
  • Length of board member terms

As you can see, joining a board is a serious commitment, which is why it's so important to only join boards when you have the passion, time and resources to fully commit.


If one of your 2024 goals is to become more involved in the community — including potentially joining a board — this is a great time to get started. As a resource, I offer up several short podcast recordings on this topic. Check out our “Community Difference Makers” podcast on iHeartRadio, Spotify or at bankerstrust.com/communitydifferencemakers. There are a few early “Quick Community Insights” articles about “Why and How to Get Involved” and “Board Service.” You can also listen to more than 30 interviews with the leaders of local nonprofits to learn which may be of most interest to you personally.

After you've done your research, let me know if you need help making a connection or want to discuss board service further. Community leadership has been an important part of my life, both personally and professionally, and I'm happy to pass on what I've learned and use the relationships I've formed to help others and the community.

Job opportunities and career resources are abundant in Greater Des Moines (DSM). Whether you're looking to find an internship, a job, develop professionally or grow as a student, we have the resources to help you thrive.

Improving the Greater Des Moines (DSM) community through volunteering and community service is a priority for many. Thanks to community engagement opportunities and leadership connecting local businesses to causes that provide services to improve the region, DSM continues to be a place that provides support for those who live, work and play here.

Emily Abbas

Emily Abbas has served the largest community bank in Iowa for nearly 10 years and sits on boards with the Greater Des Moines Partnership, United Way of Central Iowa, Bravo Greater Des Moines, Drake University, MercyOne Medical Center, Des Moines Community Playhouse, Principal Charity Classic and Governor’s STEM Advisory Council.