As someone who has worked in nonprofits since the late 1980’s– I’ve seen one issue rear its ugly head more times than I can count. The issue, which I’m sure has been around since The Hospital of St. Cross was established in Britain in 1136, is poor board recruitment, training and management. Granted the monks back in the 1100’s were probably just figuring how to run one of the first recorded charities – but I’m sure there was at least one blow hard that insisted that they were right and dismissed everyone else’s ideas to make sure their agenda was the one that prevailed. Sound familiar? You don’t have to work in a nonprofit to be exposed to that sort of bombast, but the very nature of charities sometimes attracts people who attach themselves to organizations for all the wrong reasons.
Charities, just like a regular corporation, are created because someone saw a need that they believed was not being addressed. Unlike a traditional industry whose mission it is to provide a product or service that can be sold with profits that are distributed to investors, non-profits have a social entrepreneurial spirit that gives back to the community that it serves. The money raised is invested into the programs that it offers, and it is dependent on volunteers, donors, grants and corporate contributions to keep the doors open. The people starting the organization generally do it because their passion is based in something that affected them personally (for instance a mother whose child with autism needs additional resources to get through school). In order to prevent someone else from experiencing the same dilemma, they create an organization they hope will help alleviate that situation.
Once the mission of the charity is established, the next step is to create a board of directors. In some states it can be as small as three people who are usually the founding members of the group. The goal is then to increase the number board members who can help raise the profile of the organization. But first they need to have a good understanding of the definition of a functioning board.
According to the National Council on Nonprofits, board members are the fiduciaries who steer the organization towards a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as by making sure the nonprofit has adequate resources to advance its mission.
Developing a competent Board of Directors is vital to any non-profit and it can help make or break how well an organization is able meet its mission and raise money. Yet, most fledgling non-profits get caught in the “We’re on a mission to do good and we’ll take anyone because we’re desperate!” In the history of the world, pleading for help in extreme desperation does not usually lead to a healthy outcome unless you are in a Marvel movie. Even then, the bad guy will probably hear your scream before the good guy can jump in and save the day. While it makes for great cinema, it wreaks nothing but havoc on an organization.
Sometimes nonprofits will allow board members to serve concurrent terms to insure the longevity of the organization. This approach has its pros and cons. On the pro side – you have people on the board with a strong institutional memory that the staff and volunteers can lean on for advice. They have also devoted years to helping insure the longevity of the organization. On the down side, I have seen board members who have served for over 20 years and have no intention of leaving their fiefdom. That sort of complacency often leads to the dreaded mantra of “This is how we’ve always done it and I don’t see any reason to change.” When new staff or board members try to offer a different perspective, they are rebuffed by the long-term leadership. A board’s inability to allow different ideas or technologies can leave a nonprofit vulnerable in a competitive market. Unfortunately, many times the reality is that the nice people who work and volunteer at non-profits generally have a hard time dealing with combative personalities – they are there to do good after all. The boorish behavior is too often allowed to continue for years which just emboldens the perpetrator.
After working with organizations and boards for almost 30 years, I’ve seen my share of horror stories – here are my top three which go under the heading of “Don’t let this Happen to You!”
Cautionary Tale #1:
An arts group had managed to bring on board members from all over the community and wanted to make sure that its artists were represented. Oneactor showed an interest in serving on the board and had been a reliable performer. It seemed like a natural match – the theatre had board members who represented the community and had the financial and legal skill set needed but it didn’t have an someone who could represent the performance side even though the Artistic Director was also on the board. Things were going well at first until the actor brought up a play that he had always wanted to do. The content was not keeping with the mission of the theatre and the play was voted down. The actor kept pushing and the artistic director explained that it did not jive with the other plays that they were considering.
The actor persisted to no avail and then shifted his tactic to get the board to remove the artistic director. Luckily the board saw through his manipulation, but it took months to get him off the board and it damaged the cohesiveness of the group.
Cautionary Tale #2
I was a fundraiser for a charity in the early 1990’s that included an emergency shelter for children who had to be removed from their homes because of abuse, abandonment and neglect. If you know anything about child welfare, then you know it takes numerous reports and legal maneuvering to place a child outside their home. It’s a very traumatic process for everyone involved and is only done if there is no other alternative. The children are put in the shelter until they can be placed in a foster or group home. There was a board member who gave a fair amount of money to the organization who loved to go down to the shelter and play with the kids. That all seemed fine until one of the teachers started to feel uncomfortable with the attention that he would lavish on the children because he would insist that they sit on his lap. One day, she noticed after one of the children jumped off his lap that he had what appeared to be an erection. She was horrified and quickly had the children go with her. She informed the board member that the children needed to have dinner and that volunteer hours were over.
She was not sure what she needed to do since she knew this person was an influential member of the board. She informed her superior who informed the Executive Director. The Executive Director had a meeting with the Chairman of the Board who at first refused to believe it because the accused was a pillar of the community and it was a very serious accusation. They questioned the teacher and other staff members who admitted that they had seen it too but because he was a major donor and a board member, they didn’t know how to respond to it.
The Executive Director and the Chairman of the Board called the board member in and told him the results of their investigation. He denied it but resigned from the board and the case was turned over to law enforcement and the Department of Family Services. New procedures and training were put in place to prevent this situation from ever happening again.
The prior two stories show what can happen when you have someone who uses their influence to manipulate the people around them to try to further their agenda. In the first story the actor was working out of sheer ego to get a play produced as his own star vehicle and when he didn’t get his way, he tried to remove what he saw as the obstacle – the Artistic Director. The second story had a much more nefarious tone in which you had someone using their social standing and financial contributions so he could victimize the children that the organization had pledged to protect.
Cautionary tale #3
This last story shows how a lack of understanding of the true mission of the organization and the correct chain of command can lead to a huge public relations snafu that can take years to repair.
I was the executive secretary at a child welfare agency that included foster care. Ideally, foster parents are trained to take care of the children in their stead with the idea that it will not be a permanent placement but a place that a child can reside outside an institutionalized setting while the state tries to facilitate reunification with their biological family. Sometimes the placements are made almost at birth if it’s determined that the child’s safety would be in peril if they went home with their parents who might have drug or alcohol addiction issues.
One of the foster care parents at this agency had nurtured a young girlsince she was an infant. The parents were getting back on their feet and the state wanted to reunify the family. The foster mother understandably had grown close to this young child who was two years old at this point and had let a few people at the agency know that she was interested in adoption. She was told that unless there was a termination of parental rights by the state, that the goal for the family was always reunification. The foster mother had a hard time accepting this. She didn’t want to help facilitate the supervised visits and made it difficult for the biological parents to meet with their daughter.
When it looked like the biological parents would receive custody of their daughter, the foster mother fled in the middle of the night with the young girl and left her husband and young son to contend with the press and legal fallout. The fact that a foster parent decided to take such a drastic action was bad enough but the reaction from the Chairman of the Board of the organization was even worse.
She was a friend of the woman and called a press conference unbeknownst to the Executive Director to say that she completely supported what the fugitive foster mother was doing. The Chairman stated that her friend was within her rights to protect the child by going into hiding. This proclamation of support to a woman who was now herself a criminal went against everything that the organization stood for. It also put several state welfare contracts in jeopardy which would have greatly reduced the services that the organization could offer and might subsequently cause staff lay-offs. None of this had crossed the Chairman’s mind while she was expressing her righteous indignation to the media.
A conference call was held with the board members and the Executive Director minus the Chairman. The decision was made to refute what the Chairman had said and explain that the organization supported the reunification of the family. The woman and the child were found in the middle of the state (luckily, she had not crossed state line, or the legal ramifications would have been even greater). The young girl was reunited with her biological parents and the foster mom ended up in a world of legal trouble.
This last tale exposed a total lack of cohesiveness and communication on the part of the agency. As a result, the chairman resigned from the board. A new communication and board policy was put in place in which only the Executive Director could speak to the media on behalf of the agency. There were meetings with state agencies and foster parents to assure the affected parties that there would not be repeat of this debacle. It took years to rebuild the trust between the government entities and donors with the organization just because one person decided to go rogue.
“Those are some pretty frightening stories. How do I prevent that from happening to my organization?” you might ask. It’s a matter of training and communicating to your board what is expected. Here are a few suggestions on how to prevent a volunteer leadership implosion:
- Develop a board handbook that each board member signs to make sure they understand their responsibilities and how to counter toxic behavior. Have Board members attend an orientation where they can ask questions. Make sure they meet one-on-one with the Executive Director and allow them to get to know senior management to keep the lines of communication open.
- Always ask a potential board member to serve on a committee first. If you start to see negative issues when they are on a committee, you can deal with them when they are not serving as a legal entity which has more gravity than just helping volunteer for an upcoming fundraiser.
- Make sure you have liability insurance for board members and volunteers. The three cautionary tales are a prime reason why you need coverage in case one of your board members goes way out of bounds and you are sued because of their misconduct.
· Go with your gut instinct. In all three instances, board and staff members mentioned that they felt something was not quite right with the offending party but did not want to cast aspersions. Their need to believe in the best in people made it easy for the perpetrators to manipulate the situation. It’s slippery slope to maneuver but it’s vital if something just does not seem right to figure out why.
· Do your due diligence. It’s not enough for one or two people to vouch for someone – actually check with people they work with, and other community organizations they might volunteer for. You would do a background and reference check for a new staff member, use that same diligence with potential board member.
· If they are serving on more than two boards and they want to come on your board, insist that they serve on a committee. Most of the time you can’t be heavily active on three boards without conflicts of interest or scheduling issues. If they are not showing up for board meetings and you need their vote to pass a motion, it can really undermine what business the board is able to accomplish legally.