Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Quotable nonprofit governance: Balancing empathy, boundary negotiation

"Quotable Nonprofit Governance" is a summer series sharing awe-inspiring and instructive insights from several of my favorite nonprofit board resources. My goal is to not only share great quotes but to also suggest ways to use them to inform your own approach to governance.


The larger message of this Katherine Tyler Scott quote is an important one: we cannot govern from a place of detachment from the nonprofit's mission and those it serves.

But today, I'm choosing to focus on the second half of the statement and targeting those "working boards" who take great pride in telling me they're just too busy "working" (translation: wading through management functions and organizing events and volunteering in direct service modes) to govern.

Yes, I get that you're a small nonprofit. Yes, I get that you're ultra-committed to the work and you're understaffed (or without staff). Yes, I understand that you are dedicated and want to act on that dedication to ensure the organization's success. Yes, I know - from experience - that front-line volunteerism is immediately and deeply satisfying.

But here's the rub: the governance and policy-setting work that also is essential to the organization's survival is your responsibility and yours alone. If you don't do it, no one else will - and the nonprofit will suffer. Not only that, it's your job as a governing body. Anything else is a bonus (and sometimes a distraction from your real work as a board). 

You can throw all the great community events and fundraisers you want. You can plaster your town with posters to your heart's content. You can ladle soup, answer hotlines, walk dogs - whatever "direct service" means to your nonprofit and to your sense of self-worth as a volunteer.

But if you are doing so at the expense of the leadership responsibilities that comes with governance, you are failing as a board and as individual board members.

 Returning to Scott's original quote...

It's a matter of balance. It's a matter of understanding of when it's time to govern and when it's time (usually as a volunteer, not a board member) to go elbows-deep in direct service work. (Don't take my word for it. For an excellent description of these two "hats" that board members may find themselves wearing, watch this Movie Mondays video featuring Jane Kuechle.)

We must find creative and meaningful ways to understand our mission, to make the impact and the stories of lives changed real to our boards. We need to value board members that accept governance as an active process, who want to lead and to contribute to the better community that we all seek. But we can't accept boards who are so deep in "doing" - and doing other types of volunteer service to the organization - that they aren't doing the job for which they were recruited: governing and providing the solid foundation it offers.


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