“At times it was rough,” says Simon Daly, an IBM software sales professional, about growing up in Ballymun—a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, that has endured issues such as high unemployment, drugs and anti-social behavior. Simon returned to volunteer at the Ballymun Regional Youth Resource (BRYR) in his old neighborhood fourteen years after the job center in town helped him start a career at IBM. Today he is the board chair at BRYR, helping a new generation grapple with the familiar problems of drug use, lack of employment and gang related activity.
We spoke to Simon about his journey from Ballymun to IBM and his return to serve young people in the community of his youth.
What was it like growing up in Ballymun?
Ballymun was a rough place with high unemployment, crime, drug use, high drop out rates from school. Our school would often get broken into or parts of it set on fire. I was into books and science and not sports, so that meant being targeted by the “bad boys.” But there was also a strong sense of community. While it was rough, I have a lot of good memories and remember a lot of nice people.
Even as a kid you were active in your community?
In my teens, my friends and I got involved in youth clubs in the local parish. Gradually, we got more involved—taking responsibility for repairing the facilities we used, and then organizing activities for others. At one point I assisted bringing together the various youth groups from different neighborhoods to improve services and share resources. Funny, because BRYR, where I’m now on the board, manages and provides services and facilities for many different groups in the area.
You’ve gone full circle. How did you come to work at IBM?
After about a year in college, I realized engineering was neither in my brain nor in my heart. I worked for a while in a record store and when that ended I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do next. I didn’t know what jobs were out there or what I was interested in. I registered with the Ballymun Job Centre and its Tramlines course. Over the two years of the program, I earned several Microsoft certifications which gave me an excellent grounding in many technical areas. As the course was ending, I did a one-month job placement at IBM and that led to a job offer from the company.
You no longer live in Ballymun. How did you get introduced to Ballymun Regional Youth Resource?
I knew a little about Ballymun Regional Youth Resource (BRYR) when I was at the job centre and I had kept in touch with some people from Tramlines who worked with BRYR in the early days. I made visits to BRYR in 2005 and had discussions about volunteering to help with IT projects. However, BRYR was forced to move out of their facility in 2006 and I volunteered to assist them with planning the move to a temporary location drawing on my IBM project management training and experience.
Did you have any hesitation about joining the BRYR board in 2008?
At that time, I hadn’t a clue about boards. Luckily, I was able to draw on material from IBM’s volunteer initiative, On Demand Community, about participating on a not-for-profit board. It helped me understand the typical structure of a board and the approach to good governance, among other things. I met with the director several times to have a clear understanding of his expectations and develop a view of what I could bring to the board. While I was from the community, since I no longer lived there they felt I’d bring a fresh perspective.
What other resources from IBM have you used?
Last October I presented the IBM Activity Kit on Cyber-bullying to the BRYR staff. It was especially relevant given the age of the young people using BRYR. Staff feedback was very positive. I’m hoping to deliver the material again for all BRYR staff, senior BRYR volunteers and parents of young people. At least two other IBM activity kits would be helpful, Controlling Your Online Identity and Internet Safety. An IBM community grant in 2012 is helping us towards a review of systems and processes that will improve the quality of services, including tracking our interactions with young people and other information to support service level agreements with funders.
Why is this volunteer work personally important to you?
I’m proud that I’m from Ballymun. I had a brilliant time when I was involved with youth clubs in my teens and I got a lot out of it when I became a young leader. It really helped to develop me personally. My work with BRYR draws on those experiences and it’s my chance to give a little back with some of the enthusiasm and passion I felt growing up and to draw on skills I developed and apply them back into the community.
Do you have any favorite stories about volunteering?
In recent years, particularly as chair with BRYR, I get to present awards or certifications to various graduates and young leaders involved with BRYR. I’m always impressed by their enthusiasm and the almost boundless, nervous energy that just emanates from them.
How has your IBM experience helped you be an effective board chair?
Some of the specific leadership training I’ve received at IBM has been a help, such as team dynamics, negotiation skills and even conflict resolution. I’ve worked on some difficult projects over the years and I’ve been in challenging situations where people were unhappy, so the ability to remain calm and assess a situation has been a useful skill. Also, the IBM On Demand Community web site has been a great help, with a wealth of information. I regularly turn to that site for support.
What have you learned serving on the board that might help you professionally at IBM?
I’ve learned a lot about personal politics, about governance, about how hard it can be to strike a balance between the needs of the few, the needs of the organization and the needs of the community. There is a lot I’ve learned about how people interact and what to consider when trying to influence a group or put forward a recommendation. In recent years, given brutal cuts to funding, I have learned a lot about how big a part emotion plays in someone’s ability to make decisions. For me, providing as much clarity as possible around decision making—what will happen if we accept or reject a certain recommendation—has been useful.
What advice would you give to someone considering joining a not-for-profit board?
When considering a board position, first understand the role a not-for-profit plays and fully understand your legal responsibilities. Make sure they line up with what you are expecting. Second, understand the expectations they have of you. Are they looking to draw on particular skills? Third, understand your own expectations. What impact do you want to have? If you want to be more directly involved in delivering programs, then you may be better at volunteering rather than serving on a board. Then, make an impact—contribute, be involved. Have a point of view and debate decisions. Good governance comes from thinking things through. Some time this means challenging the consensus.
There is an element to volunteering which can’t be measured and is hard to describe—the sense of achievement or accomplishment when you deliver something good. Of course, the mission must be meaningful to you. At BRYR, helping young people excel, achieve and live the best lives they can live is close to my heart.