Commitment Before Governing

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How does a nonprofit, started almost 30 years ago by volunteers intensely committed to its mission and vision, grow into a $3.3 million operation and still maintain its fundamentally volunteer character? How do the deeply held, founding values of a community-based organization survive as guideposts for organizational action through the fits and starts of a nonprofit’s history and development?

Rosie’s Place, an emergency housing, advocacy and social service-providing center for women in Boston, Massachusetts, suggests a practical response to these questions. Since its inception, contrary to the usual ways of recruiting new board members, Rosie’s Place has required that an individual come in and volunteer at the center six times during the previous six months before becoming eligible for nomination to the board of directors.

Founded by Kip Tiernan in 1974, Rosie’s Place was an all-volunteer drop-in and emergency housing center for women until the early 1980s. After hiring a paid coordinator, the center struggled to develop an appropriate governance model. According to its current executive director, Sue Marsh, “The coordinator and every member was a member of the board. All organizational issues were dealt with at board meetings and that became unwieldy and very frustrating. Lots of time was spent on processing.”

By 1990, the current, more traditional governance structure (with a 19-member board separate from staff) was in place, but the requirement for substantial volunteering experience prior to eligibility for board service “maintained some of its roots,” Marsh observed. Nonetheless, the transition to a division between board and staff was very difficult. “It was especially hard on staff who had been used to being in the thick of things and had to cede some power and trust to the board.”

Rosie’s Place now offers transitional and permanent housing, advocacy services and economic development opportunities to an estimated 6,000 women per year in the city of Boston.

The stated mission of Rosie’s Place is “to provide a safe and nurturing environment to help poor and homeless women maintain their dignity, seek opportunity, and find security in their lives.” All those associated with the center are emphatic in insisting that women who come to Rosie’s Place for meals and services are guests. In the words of a volunteer active for almost 20 years: “When a woman comes through the door, you treat her like a friend. It is the way you would want to be treated.”

Cheryl Cummings, the current board president, explained in more detail, “Using the term ‘guests’ changes the whole tone of the place because the women at Rosie’s Place are not consumers, they are not clients, they’re not patients—they are guests. And we know that guests are those that you are letting into your home or your space and that you are opening your space to their coming and they’re welcome to be there … I would say the fundamental principle or philosophy that drives the whole thing is that every woman has and deserves respect.”

The spatial arrangement in the food service area at Rosie’s Place reinforces the vision of the founders, that there should be a close human connection between the volunteers running the organization and the guests. In other words, the social space between those in need and those offering assistance is bridged to the fullest possible extent.

The idea of transcending the usual social boundaries that can act as barriers between people extends to all members of the Rosie’s Place community, including the organization’s leadership. According to the director of volunteers, boundaries between participants at Rosie’s Place are intentionally blurred, “That is how we really view ourselves as a community, and everybody is a member of the community—staff, guests, board members, volunteers. That is a major part of our philosophy—that we really try very hard to blur those boundaries.”

The purposeful blurring of boundaries between board and staff flies in the face of conventional wisdom about how nonprofit organizations should function. A significant concern might be that the board of experienced on-site volunteers would become inappropriately involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization. Rosie’s Place acts to mitigate this possibility by structuring board meetings to clearly separate work appropriate for board and staff. The last agenda item is a report by the executive director, who highlights points made in her distributed report. Operational details are essentially structured out of the governance arena, as there is no board operations committee and the agenda is designed to direct attention to broader issues. The annual orientation for new Rosie’s Place board members in early September reinforces the separation between board and volunteer roles.

The rationale behind the requirement for volunteering before governing is rooted in the history of Rosie’s Place. According to board president Cummings, founder Kip Tiernan envisioned Rosie’s Place as a center where all women, whether participating as guests or as potential board members, would strengthen their competencies and reach new levels of accomplishment. “The idea was that Rosie’s Place, in addition to being a healing place for the guests, would also be an incubator for women in general. The idea of having an organization that was for women and that was run by women was, I think, one of the guiding reasons for having that requirement,” Cummings said. “I do remember Kip saying at one point that women weren’t exactly sought out as board members, so this was a way of getting women, through that process, up to the level where they could serve as board members.”

Executive director Marsh offered additional insight into the reasoning behind the requirement: “By being around here, volunteers understand we are a community with a particular set of values and philosophy. This is part of why being a volunteer is important. We want you to know the women.”

Reflecting on the consequences of this unusual prerequisite for board service, the director of volunteer services offered an added point about the demonstrated level of commitment of potential board nominees: “I think you get people who have already bought into the organization and believe in the mission enough to give their time … Right off the bat you get people who have a level of commitment that I think is unusual on a lot of boards.” Evidence of a potential board member’s level of commitment in advance of the nomination process is a valued feature of this “volunteering before governing” requirement that was mentioned by several other board members.

On the other hand, this non-conventional recruitment process poses major challenges. “The downside of the model,” said the executive director, “is that it is completely dependent on the volunteer services director for the potential pool of board members.”

Marty Wengert, the person who holds this position, concurs, “Your pool of people who are eligible to serve on the board is much smaller.” Potential board candidates come from the organization’s 1,000 volunteers—300 to 400 who come on a regular basis and 600 who are parts of groups who volunteer together.

The need to maintain the quality of service in a large, volunteer-dependent organization can also encourage staff to rely heavily on those who initiate an inquiry to the center. “We get a lot of calls from people wanting to volunteer,” Marsh observes. “But we also need to purposefully reach out to other communities, including communities of color.” Marsh, Wengert and others have been determined to attract people of color, bilingual individuals, and people from different social classes to serve as board members.

One way to accomplish this goal was to remove the prohibition against guests volunteering, thereby creating the possibility for guests to become eligible to run for board slots. The strategy worked: three guests currently serve as board members. Commenting on this intentional effort, the board president said, “In the years that I have been involved, we’ve seen the board become more evenly distributed. More women of color. And this year we have our first guy. So I think that experience has made me very suspicious of other organizations who say, ‘Oh yes, we are really interested in diversity, but we just can’t find people.’”

One interviewee’s comment about the guests who are now board members may shed additional light on why Rosie’s Place has successfully integrated guests into the governance process: “Women who are on the board have used the services here … It makes them the experts over people who may bring more resources. So I don’t think there are issues of respect and all that. I think that people bring different ideas and opinions to the table, but I think that some women who have used the services here in the past actually bring a little bit more to the table than others, because they have actually seen it from the other side.”

Another major challenge is the imperative to raise substantial funds each year to operate Rosie’s Place. This goal is accomplished without relying on board-member leadership in fund-raising efforts, although each member of the board is asked to make an annual contribution at whatever level of giving is right for that person.

The Rosie’s Place approach to fundraising challenges the prevailing notion that a major function of nonprofit boards must be fundraising. Over the years, the organization has built an alternative fundraising program that includes a broad base of loyal donors who contribute about $150, a smaller group of $1,000 donors, and a blockbuster annual event. Attended by about 1,300 people, the fundraising and friend-raising luncheon has become a must-attend event, primarily for women leaders in the Greater Boston business community.