FLOTSAM & JETSAM: The care and feeding of non-profit boards

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The care and feeding of non-profit boards

Sam Smith

One of the hazards of leading a visibly active life is that someone may ask you to serve on their board. In my case, the risk has declined markedly in recent years thanks to a growing assumption that the purpose of a board of directors is to raise money and not to offer direction. Since I'm the sort of person who has a hard time even asking someone to change a ten dollar bill, there has been a lessened demand for my services.

I'm not, however, such a bad board member in the right circumstances. If the body is new, brave and slightly chaotic, I can offer a bit of gratuitous imagination, generate a few laughs and share some pragmatism, a sometimes unfamiliar skill in the non-profit world.

For example, as one of the resident Philistines on the then new DC Community Humanities Council, I developed the exclusive Bang/Buck Ratio, by which I rated, with consummate objectivity, each of the grant requests. I also provided cartoon minutes of meetings and, according to the official version of those minutes, once actually got the group to accept my solution to the perpetual issue of the proper relationship between executive director, executive committee and board:

"The item concerning budget amendments (Section IV,A) was resolved by S. Smith's 'Principle of Escalating Anxiety,' best explained as follows: 'If it doesn't make [the executive director] nervous it's probably okay to let her handle it. If it does, she goes to the executive board. If it makes them nervous it's probably a matter for full council consideration.'

See how simple these things can be?

The humanities council, happily, was new, brave and slightly chaotic. I loved our meetings, our arguments and my fellow board members. Besides, with how many groups can you go on retreat and end up playing jazz harpsichord in some West Virginia condo with a philosophy of science professor who carried around a miniature trumpet in his attache case?

I currently sit on the board of the Fund for Constitutional Government, which would be a delight even if it wasn't helping the cash flow of groups protecting scores of government whistle blowers, uncovering tons of government waste and fighting innumerable would-be censors of the Internet. This worthy organization was founded by Stewart Mott, who also, as far as I can tell, funded much of the 1960s. I was approached by the president of the board, Anne Zill, who suggested that she and Mott come over and have lunch with me. That day I may even have worn a tie and I'm sure I replaced my running shoes with loafers, but it wasn't necessary. Zill and Mott arrived at my office, each carrying a motorcycle helmet. Right away I knew we shared a paradigm.

The fund's board meetings average somewhere between four and six hours in length, shared by some of the most competently eccentric folk I have met in this fair city. Journalism grant committee meetings take almost as long over lunch at La Tomate, as one might imagine of a confabulation that includes Christopher Hitchens, myself and Hamilton Fish Number Whatever He Is from the Nation.

During board meetings we hear reports from some of the most useful people in America (our fundees) as they patiently deal with some of the most contentious people in America (their funders). At one end of the large table sits Mott, who may or may not be wearing a day-glo orange hunting vest, and the chair, Russell Hemenway, who is almost certainly wearing a suit in which each pin stripe has been individually pressed. Hemenway, accustomed to the more sedate ways of the Big Apple, regards us not unlike a grandfather painfully observing his obstreperous, penultimate genetic responsibilities. You soon learn that when Russ stops glaring and stands up that the party is over and we actually have to do something.

Since my wife has been involved in a number of more well-mannered civic enterprises, I have found around the house books on board governance, the well-functioning non-profit and so forth. I get the impression that the authors don't have the slightest idea of what they are talking about. For example, I have served as president of three organizations, helped to start nine and served on the board of 15 and have never had a strategic vision even in the middle of a  dark and stormy night.

Here, on the other hand, are some of the key principles of a well-functioning board that I have discovered:

- Ideally, the organization should be new and, if not new, should at least be doing something that is new. You can easily test a group's raison d'etre by attending a board meeting and calculating how much time is spent on matters that, if you had just wandered accidentally into the room, would in no way identify the organization's reason for existence. This includes all discussions of budgets, by-law changes, and most mission statements. The only mission statement I ever liked was that of the Seattle alternative paper, Eat the State. Its mission statement declared that missions had been created by the Catholic church to subjugate the Indians and that "we oppose them."

- A good time to resign from a board is when it discovers that it doesn't have a personnel policy and decides to do something about it. Bear in mind that one of the most important American organizations of the last century was the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. It went some 40 years without bylaws or a constitution.

- In the best organizations, the relationship between the executive director and the board is relaxed, cooperative and productive. No policy directive can create this. There is also a good relationship between the organization and its volunteers, the latter being regarded as assets and not as annoyances. As non-profits strive to be more "professional," as opposed to being acts of grace, then - as Emily Dickinson wrote - "a formal feeling comes - the nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs."

- The best boards have a passion for something greater than the personal interests of anyone in the room.

- Board debates should favor philosophical, political and aesthetic matters. Detailed discussions of finances and structure should be left to committees.

- Boards should be picked in such a manner that the chosen will not bore each other. Preferably, in fact, they should inspire, entertain and enlighten other board members without the latter minding a bit.

- Don't let yourself be chosen as a token anything, unless you plan to parlay it into higher office. Being a token merely allows others to become smug at your expense.

- Retreats should be held with some frequency, ideally in surroundings more reminiscent of summer camp or a Masterpiece Theatre 19th century setting than of whatever it is you are actually meant to be doing.

- All the foregoing will fail totally if the one great principle of board governance is ignored: success is directly correlated to the quality of the food served. This does not necessarily mean expensive food so much as attention to detail and taste. For example, many a worthy cause has foundered on an inadequate selection of donuts. Others have assumed, quite wrongly, that because their cause was noble and pure, their provisions should be likewise. A board meeting is no time for nutritional proselytizing. Or for skimping. Above all, the cookies should be fresh and the mayonnaise plentiful. I have watched once  outstanding non-profits wither into obscurity for failing to observe these simple rules.

In short, the best boards are conspiracies of the creative and confederacies of the competent, filled with guerrillas of the good and Aquarian anarchists working for something far grander than themselves. And the smartest among them know that salvation lies not in the proper mission statement but in the right menu.