I’m Rubber, You’re Glue

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on March 27th, 2015 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Recently, two phrases have really captured my attention.  The first appeared in a PowerPoint presentation that a colleague had picked up at a conference he attended and shared with me.  The slide title was “Key Attributes of Board Members” and the characteristic that caught my attention was:  “an earned reputation for emotional maturity” (not to be confused with emotional intelligence). I confess, I laughed out loud when I read this.

Sadly, too few boards pay attention to emotional maturity when considering candidates for board service; if they did, there would be many fewer members of nonprofit boards of directors.  Even sadder, though, is the need to call it out in the first place.  After all, you have to be at least 18 years of age to be a board member; and in reality, the vast majority of board members haven’t seen 18 in quite a while.

If they haven’t achieved emotional maturity by the time they are invited to be on a board, they just may be a lost cause.  Or, they may have appeared to have emotional maturity when asked to join, and then subsequently lost it.  As I have so frequently noted, something transformational happens—and generally, not to the good—when normally good, smart, and even emotionally mature people join a board.  They forget how to behave like their normal selves.  I am reminded of a comment my oldest sister made as we watched our aging father slip deeper and deeper inside himself, leaving the rest of us outside:  “It is a good thing his former self cannot see himself now.”  It ripped out my heart, and more than five years later, still reduces me to tears.   Maybe it would be good medicine if board members were forced to watch their own behavior once they sit down at that board table.

To a great extent this transformation happens because people don’t understand what it means to be a board member; the actual roles and responsibilities of being a board member and just how they are supposed to behave.  From parents and grandparents, teachers and our own experiences, we  learn what is expected of a good employee, so we fare much better on our first job than we do on our first board—or fifth, for that matter.  But very few of us get lessons on being a good volunteer, and particularly a volunteer with a very specific and exceedingly important, job description.  Thus, we fair very poorly in this role and too few step in to teach us.

But there is a second factor that facilitates this behavior, and it is less easily overcome: despite a) it being 2015, b) the nonprofit sector contributing 5.3% of the annual GDP, c) the fact that 9.2% of all wages and salaries paid in the US in 2014 were paid to people working in the nonprofit sector, and d) that as of 2012, US nonprofits had $3 trillion, the general population still does not take nonprofits seriously.  One of the most oft repeated statements by students in my MBA classes, now and over the past decade, is that the nonprofit sector does not attract talent because there is insufficient financial inducement.  Therefore, we are a talentless sector, filled with amateurs and those who can just barely walk and talk at the same time.

Which brings me to the second phrase that grabbed my attention and sums up so many of the conversations I have been having recently with board presidents and executive directors:  “fatally incurious governance.”  This was the headline of a recent request put out by Ruth McCambridge, editor of Nonprofit Quarterly.  How many examples of what happens to an organization when a board is somnolent does anyone board or board member need? They close their doors, they get into legal trouble, they lose their credibility and have to try and earn it back, etc.  And the examples cross the spectrum of the sector, from education (Penn State), to social service (FEGS – Federation Employment and Guidance Services and Second Mile), to arts and culture (multiple orchestras that have filed for bankruptcy or closed) and so on.   All because people didn’t care enough to pay attention, to do their jobs, to take the work of these organizations seriously.

And this brings me to ruinously lazy choices made by both board and staff at organizations that don’t want to face the hard truth, but merely want the quick and easy but inappropriate charade.  “Look,” they say, patting themselves on the back, “we are doing something; who cares if we are putting the cart before the horse or building a house of glass on a major fault line; who cares if it isn’t the right or best thing to do; it is something and we are doing it and, therefore, we are good.”

To whom?  Certainly not to your clients, or donors or partners, or staff.  But, hey, I get it: it is much easier to be passive at board meetings and sit back and listen; much easier to let the executive director or the consultant take care of things; much easier to have others do our work for us than do it for ourselves.  But there are grave consequences to that way of being.  Those who don’t have the emotional maturity to know how to care more about the mission than their own personal comfort and agenda, should not be on a board.  Those who prefer to sit back rather than lean in (and this isn’t just for women, as we all have to lean in if we want things done well and right), don’t belong on boards—or as executive directors.

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.