Stop Playing Around

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on June 17th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

0 comment

Broadway revivals like “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” although originating in a different era, often have a message that remains timely decades later.  Good example, the song,  “A Secretary is Not a Toy.”  But with all due respect to the writer/composer, Frank Loesser, the version I am singing today plays a little with the opening lines: ”  My version goes like this:  People, people, a nonprofit is not a toy, no my board, not a toy.

To be honest, I am really more than tired of hearing stories of board members, collectively or individually, shanghaiing a nonprofit as their own personal toy to do with as they want.   Here, I am thinking of the board president who is recently retired from her career and who now decides to run the nonprofit to fit her personal needs—and the rest of the board members sit back and watch this and do nothing about it.  This is the board president who is into everything—much of which is not her purview.

There is no reason for the board president to be on every committee.  And there is ABSOLUTELY no reason for the board president to chair anything more than the board itself and the executive committee.  In a culture where that is allowed to happen (and I mean allowed by the other board members), it should come as no surprise when there are no takers for becoming the next board president.  The current one has made the job of president look like an enormity that no one wants.  Now, the way this scenario ends, is that the totalitarian board president “magnanimously” agrees to serve another term.  Poof, you have despot. This situation occurs only with the collusion of the rest of the board:  they allow this situation to develop and to be sustained.  And it is the rest of the board that must assert its voice.

A board president should have no more power than any other board member; s/he just has a lot more responsibility.  That responsibility, however, does not include running everything by him/herself and becoming a one person band; it does not mean closing out the executive director or the other board members; it does not mean treating the nonprofit as his/her pet project.  It isn’t his; it isn’t a project.  It is a mission-based business that must deliver on its mission promises.  And its takes a full board and an executive director working in partnership to make that happen.

While one set of board members allows the president to dress the doll up as he sees fit, changing the clothes whenever, dying the hair, breaking a leg, etc., another set allows the board president to ignore the toy altogether.  The other board members don’t force him to trade the truck for a basketball, and move on from playing with trucks to playing b-ball.  Rather, they allow him to leave the truck in the middle of the floor to simply walk around, while every so often picking it up and thinking, “Ah, yes, you,” only to put it down for another month or months.  This is the board president who maybe didn’t really want to be president, but the board was desperate.  Or the board president who is using the office to build his resume, impress a highly sought client or potential boss, but doesn’t really want to do the job.  Any reason but the right ones.  This president is the exact opposite of the despot; this president isn’t really interested in ruling, to the point that he simply doesn’t.

This is the president who avoids the controversies and tensions in the organization, fails to bring the tough discussions to the board, keeps blinders on to the stress fractures in the board and the organization.   This is the board president content with the status quo and praying that nothing really, truly erupts on his watch.  It isn’t that he wishes the organization harm; he just wants to do no work.  And once again, the other board members, who allow this situation to continue, are just as responsible for the harm that results.

Both kinds of board presidents and the boards that allow them to exist fail to understand the role of the board and its importance to the health and well-being of a nonprofit and, therefore, the health and well-being of the community.  These are the boards that see nonprofits as “a little plaything” instead of the important and vital component of vibrant communities that they are and that need sustained attention and care.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, …. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you.
When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
(from The Velveteen Rabbit)

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.