When I read this week that two board members of Manhattan’s Whitney Museum of American Art had resigned, I was delighted. Not because I knew either one of them, but because their resignations bring to light an issue that boards ignore until it bites them.
Over the decades, I have worked with the boards of dozens of organizations to help them build strong, strategic boards. We first always identify the ideal of what they would like on the board—from demographics and expertise to access/connections and personality traits—and work backwards. A key driver behind this is the goal of having a board that is reflective of its constituency. I cannot recall an organization putting political orientation its list. But perhaps they should.
Years ago, in a less fractious political age, an arts organization came to me with what they saw as a problem. A previously well-liked member of the board had made the comment that he did not believe that government should support the arts. There was, so the story goes, an audible gasp around the board table, followed by lots of averted eyes. Rather, he said, individuals and the private sector should fund the arts. The last part of his statement, however, was not heard because he’d already been labeled, boxed and marginalized, to the point that the executive director and board president called me to ask what to do. The board member, and his history of generous giving, were already lost. What to do?
I got a similar call shortly after the 2016 election. An executive director said a major donor had called her that morning to let her know that he would no longer be supporting her environmental organization because he had read a board member’s personal Facebook posts expressing displeasure with the newly elected president. Again, a donor is replaced by a disgruntled former supporter.
The Whitney’s loss of its two board members is, according to one, the direct result of the nonprofit boardroom having become too “politicized.” He was pressured to resign by protests over the fact that his company produces tear gas – the brand of tear gas used to disperse crowds at the border and in Puerto Rico. The second board member resigned because he felt the board’s discussion of the resignation of the first board member exposed an underbelly of liberalism that did not please him.
While there are definitely nonprofit missions that folks would categorize as belonging to one political bent or another, the vast majority of nonprofits are politically neutral. For example, hunger, homelessness, addiction, education, and, yes, arts and culture, are, at the starting point, all politically neutral, although how one proposes to address food insecurity, hunger, art, etc., may well be influenced by one’s political orientation, just as it may be influenced by one’s age, upbringing, education, etc. And, just as some of us have come to understand and appreciate the importance and value of board members who are diverse in backgrounds, skills, race, sex, etc., should that list of characteristics on which we want to diversify include political orientation?
Though of late, our two-party system of government has broken down, the idea behind it was a good one: the respectful exchange of differing ideas and perspectives will bring the collective, eventually, to the best decision for the greater good. When one party, one perspective, one sex, one knee-jerk way of doing things dominates, do we risk losing the richness (and soundness) of our ultimate decisions that result from the clash of differing viewpoints? Perhaps the Whitney’s board was too politicized, not because it succumbed to the wishes of protestors but because it failed to note the political leanings of its board members, thereby losing its political balance.