Don’t be a Tool

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 20th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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What I am about to say will be sacrilegious to those nonprofits that have fed at the trough of politicians, but it is high time politicians got out of nonprofits.

While yes, this has something to do with the rash of arrests (indicating there was solid evidence sufficient to convince a district attorney to issue an arrest warrant) of, and allegations about, politicians accused of playing all sorts of hanky panky, funneling money to their favorite nonprofits, there is much more to this decision.   The arrests and the allegations that make it into the media are the obvious transgressions, the ones that leave a visible trail that those dedicated enough—or interested enough—can follow all the way to the wrong doing.  Generally, the ones pursuing those trails are reporters (thank goodness!), angered board members, donors or clients or disgruntled others.

There is, however, a much more harmful source of political interference in nonprofits—more harmful because it tends to be invisible to the external eye, insidious, and far less likely to win disapproval because it appears to be benign.  To what am I referring?  Political appointments of nonprofit board members.

While this is mostly seen with quasi-government organizations and organizations created through legislative orders, there are “regular” nonprofits that think they are doing themselves a service by asking the mayor, town or county council, etc., to appoint a person or people to their board.  They think this gives them a leg up, an insider position, a “friend of X” status that will get them special perks.  Maybe, and just maybe, it will.  But mostly, it will get them a lot of nothing at best; at worst, it will get them a lot of tsuris!

Not clear?  Let me count the ways!

  1. Generally, but by no means always, people who are appointed to a board by a public official—rather than wooed by the organization—make lousy board members.  First and foremost, they rarely bring the passion for the mission that is so necessary in a good board member.  To them, the position of board member is a job, a task that the “boss” told—not asked—them to do; it is not, as it should be for those wooed, an avocation or keen desire.  Thus, they are not invested and don’t feel the same obligation to attend meetings, work on a committee, make the expected gift, assist in donor cultivation, etc.  Thus, it is a board seat filled in name only and a loss to the organization.
  2. As a result of the nonparticipation that was suggested above, many nonprofits with too many political appointments on their boards face the problem of too many meetings without a quorum.  While I know that, sadly, this happens for nonprofits without political appointees on their board, those boards have the power to change their reality and find better board members.  Not so with the political appointees.
  3. Most public officials, when they appoint someone to a member of a nonprofit board, appoint someone intimately involved with the political system.  They may be other elected officials, they may be staff of an elected official or they may appoint themselves.  Employees of most government agencies aren’t allowed to engage in fundraising; thus, while they may be able to make a donation to your organization (if they are so inclined), they will not be able to get involved in cultivating others to give to your organization.
    1. More often than not, when I see political figures on boards, I also see their alternates.  This is no way to run a board.  One of the reasons that regular attendance at meetings—board and committee meetings—is so important is it enables board members to learn about the issues, be part of an ongoing conversation, gain a sense of history, etc.  When alternates attend meetings boards are simply getting placeholders, not equal participants.
  4. Having grown up in Washington, DC, I learned early on that people—even really smart people—defer to politicians—even really dumb ones.  Something about being in the aura of perceived political power seems to suck people’s independence right out of them.  Politicians will use any stage given to them to their advantage.  Thus, nonprofits can easily become the (political) pawns of their politician board members.   Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be the politician him/herself:  they appoint others to boards to do their biddings.  Sometime that bidding can be the grinding of an axe for perceived injuries long since past; sometimes it can be payback for a more recent, perceived slight.  Doing a politician’s bidding is never a good thing for a board member.
  5. By and large, today’s elected officials see themselves as pretty entitled individuals.  They are less critical about their behavior than they should be and, as a result, do some pretty outrageous things.  Recently, I heard a wonderful story of an elected official whose term as a board member was up, having served his two consecutive, three-year terms.  Not “finished” doing what he was asked by his appointer to do, he petitioned an outside legal source to override the bylaws and allow him to stay on the board.  It worked.  And the rest of the board?  Who knows!  While this is an extreme example, and one I admit I’ve never heard before, political appointees on boards “pull rank” far too often and not to do what is in the best interest of the organization.

I could go on and on with this list, but the point should be clear by now:  politics and nonprofits—and I would argue this even for, or perhaps especially for, quasi government organizations—simply do not belong together.  Nonprofits should never allow themselves to be the political tool of anyone, regardless of what is promised.  From the very beginning, the nonprofit will, more than likely lose, and the “big payoff” will not materialize.

I am not surprised that politicians regularly make bad appointments to nonprofits.  Their lack of  awareness and understanding of the importance of nonprofit boards is no revelation.  They are, after all, just regular ole people, and we know most people don’t understand the purpose, roles and value of nonprofit boards.  Nor am I shocked by politicians who use nonprofit boards for their own political or personal gain.  What I don’t understand, and cannot tolerate, are nonprofit boards who allow it to happen thinking there are winning.  Look around; you aren’t winning anything.  You are, however, losing  a lot.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.