Governing Like Local Leaders

About a week ago, I happened across this letter to the editor of the Addison County Independent Members of Nonprofit Boards Make Big Contributions. Addison County, Vermont has a population of roughly 36,821 (according to the 2010 census) and is the home of Middlebury College. Unsurprisingly, the Independent covers local news such as the winners of its district's congressional race and recent champions of high school women's lacrosse. The op/eds of late have been pretty political but have also included articles addressing local social concerns. The article I found (which admittedly came through my Google Alerts feed) caught my eye because it gave attention to a topic that is near and dear to my heart: nonprofit board governance. In her article, community member Jessica Danyow writes:

titled

"I think there is a type of volunteer whose time and efforts often go unlauded...They are the members of the boards of directors that govern so many of our area organizations. I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve seen many board members in action in the past week and I’ve been impressed by the selfless nature of the work." 

She goes on to observe:

"I know of a board that gave up an entire Saturday for a long-range planning session; I know board members that have been tirelessly fundraising to grow a local school, I’ve seen board members of a local church jump into governance action right at the tail end of a service.

I hope that by shining a light on these folks I might inspire more (and younger) people to consider this kind of volunteer service. Without it, much of what we take for granted in our community may not continue to thrive." 

Photo: Monster Ztudio/Adobe Stock
Reading Ms. Danyow's very concise opinion reminded me of the myriad nonprofits that exist in my local communities - from faith communities to civic groups; from social service agencies to parent-teacher associations... and beyond. It's worth noting that not all local nonprofits fit the same bill - some are larger and better funded than others - but generally speaking what I find most compelling about local groups is that they exist everywhere and yet are not always noticed in our localities. Despite this, I am inclined to agree with Ms. Danyow that the work of local nonprofit boards everywhere deserves recognition and respect.

This article also made me think back on a conversation I had with the Executive Director of an association I worked for very early in my career. I recall we were talking about how to better engage our board members and I found myself sharing some examples of how volunteer leaders from my church were encouraged to get involved. In response, the ED said "Rachel... our leaders are very important and busy professionals... they're not the same as folks who just flip a few burgers at a weekend barbecue."

Ouch! Now, to give some benefit of the doubt, the ED may have been just trying to say "apples and oranges, Rachel" but I couldn't help being a bit offended on behalf of my faith community leaders, many of whom made vital contributions as presidents, legal trustees, property committee chairs and Sunday school superintendents. Their contributions were far from flipping burgers and their commitments were just as important as sitting on a high profile board for a national association with a $1M+ budget.

It seems to me that governance (particularly the energy volunteers put into it) tends to be considered of value only so far as it can be scaled. This is why it may be easier to hold up the involvement of major philanthropists and professional leaders on high profile boards as significant, while the contributions of local leaders, who often work with smaller infrastructures and fewer resources, can go un-noticed. Ironically, in my experience, it tends to be the boards of larger organizations with "very important people" that can be more passive in fulfilling their fiduciary duties, with staff members able and willing to do all of the leg work only to receive rubber-stamp approval in return.

Now, I am not saying that national boards with high profile members are not capable of good governance. I have worked with many busy professionals and major donors who have given 110% to their board responsibilities and their involvement was absolutely vital. What I am saying is that there is a certain complacency that can come from serving in an organizational system that writes off the value of governing boards' contributions based on faulty assumptions about their members' importance and willingness to engage. 

Local leaders and board members of small organizations don't typically have the luxury of being complacent. They know that if they don't roll up their sleeves and do the work - and by that I mean all of the work from fundraising to strategic planning to financial oversight - it most likely won't get done and the organization will suffer for it. Granted, this "roll up your sleeves" attitude can have its drawbacks too. Many small boards find themselves recycling leadership year after year because they lack capacity to work on volunteer recruitment and board development. 

But I posit that there is still a lesson to learn from valuing the engagement of those less known local/small board leaders who give their hearts and souls to their communities. It's because their fiduciary and strategic duties are absolutely no different from those of bigger boards and yet chances are they have more skin in the game when it comes to helping the nonprofit realize its mission. 

Maybe there is something to be said for propping up our community groups when making the case to our more corporate non-profit leaders for why board/volunteer engagement is so important. Perhaps it would behoove us not to assume that our big important people aren't capable of flipping a few proverbial "burgers" when it comes to doing the labor intensive yet critically important work of the governing board. It may just inspire them to do more, give more and morally invest more in the future of the organization.

Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE, a nonprofit governance consultant, is Principal and Owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC.

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