As a board member, it is important to understand your role versus the role of the staff and the executive director. Every board struggles to find the right balance. Boards have fiduciary responsibility; they are legally responsible for the organization. They determine the vision and mission of the organization, they select and manage the executive director or CEO, they make sure the organization has adequate resources, and they set key strategies and policies. Board members should not be making daily decisions about programs or communications. That said, an organization often asks an individual to join their board because they have expertise in the program area or in communications. So how do you reconcile the fact that you were asked on the board because of your expertise but aren’t really supposed to be involved with daily programs?
In this story, one board member was able to influence a key communication because she had been on the board for a long time and had developed trusting relationships with both the CEO and the rest of the board. When something came up that she disagreed with, she focused on the values of the organization.
A Trusted Board Member Can Influence Decisions
By a Dedicated Board Member, Somewhere in the USA
I served on the board of a global human rights organization for 30 years. I joined the board when the organization was founded — about 34 years ago. The board was international — there were people from Afghanistan, Palestine, Ukraine, all over the world as well as American members.
Over the years, I did the usual board stuff. I chaired the governance committee and then later the development committee. Towards the end, I decided that my role on the board was to be the “guardian of the values” of the organization. The founder was no longer part of it. There was a new CEO and new people. I felt that these values were integral to the mission and the success of the organization.
At one point, there were some excursions by the Israelis into Palestinian territory. The new CEO wanted to send a letter to our constituents and donors condemning this action. I said, “I agree. It’s pretty horrific. But I think it is a huge mistake to send a letter to donors about this particular occupation. First, there are other – maybe a dozen other – occupations going on in the world. Why do we single this one out? It is no more horrific than any of the others. It is different in that it has gone on longer. If you look at our values, you can’t condemn just one. You have to condemn all of them. Second, you will alienate every donor who supports Israel.” I went back to our values which are so important to our mission and stressed that this was a short-sighted action. I said if you want to send a letter out about occupations and list 10 occupations with the Palestinian one being right in the middle, that’s okay. But you can’t call out one without having serious repercussions for the organization.
And that’s exactly what they did. They sent out a letter talking about all occupations. And people were appreciative of the letter which pointed the oppressive and horrifying impact in many countries.
Pause to Get Perspective Before Big Decisions
The lesson is that a nonprofit should think about how they act in the moment to a particular crisis. You have to put it in perspective, to look at the overall picture and the effect of your actions on various constituencies. That does not mean you shouldn’t condemn bad things. And it does not mean you should make all your decisions based on donor retention. You just need to be mindful of all the different pieces. Also, you need to look back at your values before taking important, visible actions. Because you can find ways, thoughtful ways, to do what you want to do if you just step back for a minute.
Build Trusting Relationships to Be Heard
Another lesson is that board members can have an influence over these things. It’s not the decision of the board. But if you build a trusted reputation first, then you will be heard. In this case, they listened to me for many reasons. I had a good relationship with other board members and the CEO. They knew my politics and that I was supportive of the Palestinians. I was not trying to suppress the Palestinian cause in any way. They also knew that I understood fund development and that I was right – the letter they were proposing would impact some donors. Most significantly, they saw that I was upholding the values of the organization. All these are important to be heard.
So let’s begin a conversation: Do you think it is ever okay for a board member to get involved in program? When and how?