Self-Serving vs. Public Serving

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 6th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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When something is so obvious to you, it can be hard to understand why others don’t “get it.” Add to this the challenges of overcoming well-entrenched myths and dominant models of “how things should be” and you get insight into how difficult it can be to understand some of the ways and idiosyncrasies of the nonprofit sector, including some key relationships. Even those who have been in the sector for a while don’t always get it and, thus, blow opportunities to the detriment of all.

Here are some of those key relationships and how they should work.

The board and the nonprofit.  It’s not hard to recognize that the nonprofit board is an odd duck. We take a group of people, most of whom know nothing about doing the work of the mission, and put them in charge.  How crazy is that?  And, yet, when it works as this relationship is intended to,it is quite amazing.  

In putting a body at the top of the organizational chart that is not immersed and skilled in the work of the mission but is, instead, bringing other expertise, perspective, experiences, etc. to the table, we ensure an important division of labor, such that the board is the objective steward of the nonprofit’s mission and body (the organization that was created to carry out the mission promises), leaving staff to be the experts necessary to deliver on those promises. It is actually quite clever.

For this relationship to work, however, three things must be in place.

  1. Board members must be passionate about the organization’s mission;
  2. Board members must understand what they really are supposed to do—they must understand their job—as opposed to what they thought/have heard, what they have experienced on other nonprofit boards (as too often what they learned/saw there was not correct), what they “know” about for-profit boards (as nonprofit boards are different animals; same species, different genre); and
  3. Board members must do the job.

As a bonus, it helps if, from the start, the executive director understands all of this, but s/he can easily learn this, get it and work in partnership with the board or leave or be removed by the board. This is an easy segue to the second relationship that confounds too many.

The board/executive director. I’m never sure why this is such a hard dynamic to understand: the ED reports to the board and, therefore, is accountable to the board; the board is the boss of the ED.  Can’t get much simpler than that. It doesn’t matter whether the ED is a founder, has been there a long time or just started yesterday—the board is and always will be the boss. The very top of the organizational  chart, the place where the buck stops, is the board. While there are some lawyers who were foolish enough to write bylaws giving a founder veto power over the board, that place a founder above the board.  And while that may be legal in the eyes of the law, it is nowhere on the good-better-best continuum of practices for effective, credible nonprofitsMoreover, all of the above holds true for performing arts organizations that have both a managing director and artistic director; the board is still at the top.

The goal, however, is not for this to be a heavy handed, “we are the boss” type of relationship. Rather, it is expected to be a partnership, albeit of slight unequals, knowing  that the board is always the boss of the ED. In this partnership, the ED isn’t responsible for recruiting new partners; that’s the board’s job—both to find its new peers and, when necessary, to find a new ED.

Nonprofits don’t serve donors; donors help us to serve our clients.  Let’s be really clear:  the purpose of every nonprofit is to work on behalf of some portion of the public good;  our purpose is not to serve donors, to do their bidding, do what they think want or this is best. Those who provide the services to the public good are supposed to be the experts. They are the ones who are supposed to be listening to their clients, studying the data that tell the story about their clients, scanning their field for successful programs at  sister organizations, etc., and then designing programs/ services to help those clients.  Thus, they are the ones who should be telling donors what is needed and then matching programmatic needs to donor interests—not taking donors’ money to build and do what donors want.  

In this country, we all understand the relationship of buyer and seller and the need for the seller to keep the buyer happy so that the buyer will continue to buy from the seller.  And so is the case in the nonprofit sector.  

But here’s the rub:  for many nonprofits, the consumer doesn’t actually have to buy what the nonprofit has to offer; donors have already bought the goods that the consumer receives. This makes it easy for many inside and outside the nonprofit sector to get confused about this three-way relationship. Nonprofits must design and provide the services/programs needed by their clients in order to keep donors interested, but we keep donors happy not by doing what they think is best, but by demonstrating to them the success clients have in the programs they support. 

We don’t exist for self-perpetuation.  As noted above, every organization deemed a nonprofit is such because it serves the public good. Not self-serving, but public-serving.   Nonprofits don’t exist for the purpose of self-perpetuation, to ensure employment for those who work there, to make staff and/or board members feel good and pretend to be doing good.   

Thus, when an organization struggles year after year to stay afloat, or when its mission is no longer necessary or valued, or others are doing the same job only better, or any number of other scenarios, the question must be asked, “do we still need to exist?”  

This is an essential, though scary, question that every nonprofit  board needs to force itself to ask and answer honestly on a regular basis. And now would be a good time for such a conversation. And as harsh as this sounds, a concern raised in this conversation cannot be the future of the organization’s employees, or the feelings of the founder, or anything other than what will be best for the organization’s clients, how will they best be served?  After all, nonprofits exist to help the public good.

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.