*Written in collaboration with Dr. Riyaz Hassanali
An invitation to join a board can feel like a validation. By giving you a nod, the other members are in essence endorsing your skills, respecting your resources, and inviting you to play in their inner circle. For young professionals the promise of board service can seem especially appealing, opening the door to important business connections and starting a new category of accomplishments for your resume. And of course when the non-profit has a mission or target population that speaks directly to your passions, it’s hard to be anything but enthused about the prospect of stewardship.
Despite the build-up, however, many of us have experienced the frustration and disappointment that can come with board governance. Instead of helping a population or stewarding a mission, we often find ourselves shuffling reports or patching holes with never-ending checks and fundraisers. Because incoming dollars and grants are easier to track than more intangible outcomes related to community needs and impact, an inadvertent emphasis on fundraising and grant writing can emerge. When funding and fiscal health become accepted proxies for organizational success, the board can be lulled into a false state of confidence. Paradoxically, organizations that become increasingly complex are often less nimble and able to adapt to a changing environment. And as the challenges facing our marginalized communities become more deep and complex, the vary organizations that we are relying on to serve them become equally unstable.
When one accepts this inherent state of instability the implications for board stewardship suggest some weighty questions. Does the need for community support justify the perpetuation of instable non-profit models? Does the fact that long standing community organizations have existed suggest that they should continue to exist? And by inviting in leaders who have the resources to sustain and perpetuate these organizations, how will we ever break the cycle and create leaner and more nimble approaches?
Logically, the only way out of this dilemma is to hold boards and their directors to a new set of standards, and to employ a series of clarifying questions to reveal areas of concern and needed change. Is the organization necessary within its respective community? Are there other organizations that occupy a similar space? Does and can collaboration happen to increase efficiencies and strengthen service for that population? Is there a better and/or smarter way to deliver the services? From an operations standpoint we must look at whether the population and its respective needs are at the center of the model, with clearly defined commitments that can be met regardless of a changing landscape. Is the organization run with maximal simplicity, transparency and self-sustainability? And does it maximizes human capital, volunteerism, and in-kind resources to the fullest extent?
These and related questions will become increasingly important if we aspire to get more out of our non-profit organizations as solutions for our growing community challenges. We will need support for existing boards to grapple with these complexities and make the necessary modifications to increase stability and impact. But we will also need to attract new board members with the skills and competencies necessary to steward this considerable paradigm shift. We will need directors who are creative and entrepreneurial, able to hold organizations accountable and pull the plug if necessary.
Holding ourselves and our community boards to this new level of standard will not be easy, and will require significant support. But the alternative is unacceptable. If we fail to make the necessary changes and simply continue to perpetuate community organizations as they exist, the only thing that we will be stewarding is the their obsolescence.