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On Responsibility
Part I: The Individual

Silence. It can fill a pause that conveys reflection. It can be a sign of comfortableness between friends. It can mark the end of conversation when nothing is left to be said. Silence can be golden — and it can be leaden.

What does silence mean in a board meeting? When a question is posed and no one ventures an answer? When dissension produces only voiceless tension? When commitment is needed and no one steps forward? Time stretches out like a taut rubber band, or as poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote in Silent Moon, "’Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass."

Have you ever been in such a situation? We have. Oh, there may be murmurings, pleasantries, motions of going through a meeting agenda, but there is no meaningful discussion or debate. No challenge to the status quo. There is a paucity of ideas, of emotion. Essentially silence pervades like twilight’s gloom.

We’ve been in circumstances where such deadening silence seems to be the norm during board meetings. It reveals a deadened spirit. It’s our responsibility to discover why. What has led to this state of entropy, of inaction? Can it be changed, or is it irreversible?

A silent board can result from many causes. Whatever the cause, silence is an indication that a board has abdicated responsibility — the board collectively and its members individually. Or perhaps it never assumed responsibility to begin with.

Let’s consider the individual’s responsibility as a member of the board — be it trustee, director or governor. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a responsibility as "a charge, trust or duty for which one is responsible." It provides three applicable definitions for responsible: "morally accountable for one’s actions, capable of rational conduct; answerable to a charge; and capable of fulfilling an obligation or trust."

When a board member abdicates or neglects to assume responsibility, it means that he or she is failing to fulfill a trust extended in good faith and is also failing to discharge a duty, a moral accountability. This is a puzzlement. The people who sit on boards generally are quite responsible in the personal, business and civic facets of their lives.

Why do conscientious, responsible people behave differently in occupying a position on the board? Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership observes, "Most trustees I know just don’t care enough. If trustees really cared, ideas and people would blossom all over the place."

I think he’s right. When a board meeting is an ordeal to be endured, service has become a burdensome chore. Greenleaf admits, "And I am keenly aware of what unrewarding experiences those were — for me as an ineffective trustee."

Several questions come to mind. How does it come to pass that people who don’t care about the institution are asked to join the board? How can a board fulfill its responsibility to act as trustee on behalf of the public interest if its seats are filled with people who don’t care? On the other hand, why do people who don’t care continue to occupy those seats? Why did they agree in the first place? These are rhetorical questions.

Peter Drucker weighs in with questions more to the point in Managing the Non-Profit Organization, "The ultimate, ‘What should I hold myself accountable for by way of contribution and results? What should this institution hold itself accountable for by way of contribution and results? What should both this institution and I be remembered for?’"

For many people this is a different way of viewing the responsibilities of trusteeship. It becomes quite personal and connects personal responsibility to institutional responsibility. To ask — and answer — these questions, the individual has to care.

You can’t command people to care. You can’t convince people that, in Greenleaf’s words, they should serve "their institutions in a way that builds a society that is more just and more loving, and with greater creative opportunities for all of its people." It doesn’t work. Those values and feelings have to come from within. And then resonate with the institution’s values and vision for the future.

To quote Greenleaf again, "Rather I think of responsibility as beginning with a concern for self, to receive that inward growth that gives serenity of spirit without which someone cannot truly say, ‘I am free.’ One moves, then, to a response to one’s environment, whatever it is, so as to make a pertinent force of one’s concern for one’s neighbor — as a member of a family, a work group, a community, a world society. The outward and inward are seen as parts of the same fabric. Responsible persons have both....They have wonder in their hearts. This is the way they choose to respond."

It takes time and experience to develop a sense of caring. We care about those things we believe in, that are important to us. When a candidate is considered for a position on the board, it is important to know their level of caring and understanding about the institution.

At one level, have they, or someone they are close to, had a personal experience with the institution? Have they been a patient or a student? Have they adopted a child or received other services? Have they volunteered in some way?

At another, what do they know about the institution and its mission? Have they financially supported the institution’s annual fund or events? Have they patronized exhibits at the museum? Have they attended performances of the theater or symphony? Have they been receiving — and reading — the annual report and other publications?

Or, are they even aware of the organization? Do they have any idea of the constituency served? Have they read of plans to open the new children’s museum? Do they know anyone already serving on the board?

It’s important to make the assessment before inviting a person to serve. Few people approached about serving on a board have had enough experience and time to come to the point where they care enough. Most of that work needs to be done in advance of their joining the board. Few boards have orientation and continuing education programs that can elicit that kind of caring in short order.

The selection of board members ought not be left to a nominating committee that simply meets a few times before the annual meeting to come up with a list of names of people who might be willing to agree to serve. That is a sure road to mediocrity, to a table surrounded by board members who don’t care enough to take responsibility. To silence. Candidates for the board should be considered and cultivated in the same way as major gift prospects. (It goes without saying that they are, or should be, major gift donors.)

It takes time to bring a candidate to the point that he or she is prepared to answer Drucker’s questions. There is a strong inclination among board members to short-circuit this process. The same dread of asking for a gift usually exists in asking someone to make the kind of commitment needed to serve responsibly on a board. There is the tendency to minimize the requirements, to overlook other commitments that will diminish their effectiveness, to ask if they care enough to assume responsibility.

A successful board is comprised of leaders. John Gardner in On Leadership lists one of the characteristics of leadership as the willingness, indeed eagerness, to accept responsibilities. In fact, he believes, "The taking of responsibility is at the heart of leadership....This attribute is the impulse to exercise initiative in social situations, to bear the burden of making the decision, to step forward when no one else will." Isn’t that the kind of board members institutions need?

Board members ought to enjoy "the lift of spirit that comes with assuming responsibility," in Gardner’s words. A board comprised of people who care will always find a willingness among them to take responsibility. Their spirits will be lively and engaged. They will believe not only that one person can make a difference, they will embrace the revolutionary changes that a group of committed people can undertake.

Suggested reading:

Carver, John, Boards that Make a Difference, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1990.

Drucker, Peter F., Managing the Non-Profit Organization, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1990.

Gardner, John W., On Leadership, The Free Press, New York, 1990.

Greenleaf, Robert K., Servant Leadership, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, 1977.

Herman, Robert D. and Associates, The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1994.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy


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