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On Responsibility
Part II: The Board

In my first article about responsibility, we examined the responsibilities of individuals who serve on boards. Now, we take a look at the collective responsibility of the board.

One of the most common plaints we hear from fund raising professionals and chief executives is "I can’t get my board to ask for gifts." And I’m sure you receive many promotional brochures such as one that recently arrived in the mail with this statement on the cover, "You want to motivate your board members to raise money."

The attitude which these reveal is insidious. Too many of us who work for nonprofit organizations have taken it as our responsibility to motivate our boards to raise funds, to advocate, to take any action at all.

This attitude masks an expectation we have that our board members are simply unpaid workers who are supposed to do willingly what we believe they should. There’s that odious little word, "should." We need to extinguish it from our vocabulary. It conveys the wrong message: a command; an imposition of our will. When combined with "have," it expresses the subsequent disappointment of our expectations.

It is not our role to motivate board members. If that is in your job description, it is an inappropriate expectation. I have a hard time believing that any board, even one functioning minimally, would tell the organization’s staff, "motivate us."

However, the belief that we have a responsibility to motivate board members demonstrates how far many nonprofit organizations have departed from their origins. Most were brought into being by a group of people working together to seek change: to right a wrong; to offer hope where there was none; to provide opportunity where none existed. Even today, newly formed nonprofit organizations commonly arise from the concerns or interests of a group of people.

As nonprofit organizations evolve, they become "professionalized." They hire staff to manage, to provide services, to coordinate activities, and to do all the other tasks that must be done in pursuing their missions. It’s a natural and necessary process.

Typically, staff are deeply committed to the institution and those whom it serves. They become proficient in providing these services. They are expert in meeting regulatory requirements. They develop an arcane language whose meaning is impenetrable to outsiders, even board members in many cases. Gradually, they take on an attitude of ownership of the organization. Sometimes, they begin to believe that they care more about the organization than the board and that they know best how it should be managed. Then the board becomes an infringement, a nuisance, a tolerated legalism.

Therein lies the problem for many organizations today. John Carver in his excellent book, Boards that Make a Difference, notes that a board acts as trustee on behalf of the organization’s owner. A nonprofit organization serves to further the public interest, so the owners are essentially those members of the public who have an interest in its success. However, because this identification of owners is so nebulous, I prefer to think of the board has having the ownership responsibility for the organization.

Most boards have forgotten their own histories; they don’t see themselves as a continuing body that originated with that first group of people who brought the organization to life. They don’t realize that they are the owners, not the staff. Therefore, they don’t have a deep sense of responsibility. They may understand that they have legal and fiduciary responsibilities, but they fail to recognize that what the organization is and what it will become rests in their collective hands.

Read your organization’s articles of incorporation. It is likely to have wording to this effect: the board of directors shall have powers which include conducting, managing and controlling the affairs and conduct of the corporation. It will probably contain a statement that the chief executive shall have such duties and powers as may be assigned by the board of directors.

The governing documents make clear who is in charge. Why is it that so many board members believe and act as if they serve at the pleasure of the chief executive? If they don’t actually believe that, then they probably think that as long as the chief executive is doing a good job — whatever that may be — then that’s the extent of their responsibility as a board.

Is it any wonder then that few boards assume much responsibility for fund raising? That’s what the development director is hired to do — further "professionalization" of the organization, further distancing of the board from its ownership responsibilities. This situation is substantially exacerbated for those organizations that derive a large proportion of their funding from earned revenue sources such as third-party reimbursements, dues, fees and sales.

So, if it is not our job to motivate the board to assume its responsibilities (as we perceive them), whose is it? It requires a willingness of at least one board member to assume leadership. That doesn’t necessarily mean the chairperson or, by assuming a leadership role, that the individual is committing to chair the board. It means that someone is willing to challenge other board members, to question and provoke.

How can this be accomplished? It can happen in the context of a board retreat. Often a board member will feel more comfortable raising or responding to probing questions in a setting facilitated by a skilled professional. Alternately, you can invite a board member to a workshop that will provide a forum for opening discussion of these issues. If the organization uses a consultant, utilize that individual to help the board examine its role and responsibilities. Or meet with a member of the board whom you believe has potential to take a leading role to discuss how to improve organizational performance. Sometimes success will create a desire for more success. Involve one of the board members in a prospect call that you believe will be successful and ask that person to talk about the organization. The point is that you have some options, you don’t have to passively accept the situation as hopeless.

Look for someone who is willing to answer Peter Drucker’s questions in Managing the Non-Profit Organization. "What should I hold myself accountable for by way of contribution and results?" Any change effort has to start with a single individual’s commitment to make a difference, to assume responsibility, to take the lead. This is a powerful question. It places the onus where it belongs — with the individual board member. "What can I contribute? What results do I want us to achieve?"

The answers are not easy to determine. Many organizations don’t have a clear idea or vision of what results they want to achieve. Too often, their vision is just doing better what they already do. That’s a matter of management or efficiency, not leadership. A board’s responsibility is leadership — leading the organization to have a greater impact in serving its constituency. As Drucker writes, "Every non-profit organization exists for the sake of performance in changing people and society."

Once one individual is willing to ask him- or herself those questions and in turn to ask others on the board, the board is on the road to asserting its ownership of the organization. It is a long process of transformation that will stall and stumble along the way. But if even one person has the commitment to make a difference and holds true to that conviction, it can happen. You may be able to provide the spark, but the flame has to take hold inside the heart of one of the board members.

When the board assumes an ownership attitude and acts in accordance, then the development director or chief executive doesn’t have to ask how to get the board involved. The board will hold itself accountable for funding the activities that will produce the results it wants to achieve. Achieving those results will reinforce within them the desire to make a difference. That is the interior motivation that leads them to give substantially and ask others to join them.

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.

Katzenbach, John R. and Smith, Douglas K., The Wisdom of Teams, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1993.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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