Embrace Participation

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The story of American history is about the broadening of participation. After the American Revolution, the founding fathers did not create a participatory democracy when they framed the Constitution. Instead, they created a series of checks against what they viewed as unreliable and dangerous popular will. Political scientists call this the deferential-participant model, where a few participate in the political system and everyone else defers to their superior judgment. We have been evolving away from that model ever since, both politically and socially—and that has real implications for governance.

The effective boards that I see are the ones that have understood this evolution, and have embraced participation. The less effective ones are stuck in the old model in which the board makes the decisions, as in “You folks out there, you may have a stake in our decision, but don’t bother to share your thoughts, because we are large and in charge.”

I found the Women’s College Hospital Blue Sky Committee and the Cleveland Congregation very admirable in this way. They made self-conscious efforts to broaden the process and bring voices inside the tent that have typically been outside the tent.

Some people devoted to traditional boards would say that wide participation can lead to chaos, for it is difficult to bring a diverse group of stakeholders to a consensus. But when you go through the chaos on the front end, you come out on the back end with stakeholder buy-in, and people who believe the process is valid and should be respected.

In addition, those who have participated in a decision will tend to defend your organization and its work against the critics. Enormous problems with both passive and active resistance result from ramming things through without ever consulting people who have a stake in the organization.

Stakeholders who are left out of decision-making processes often react with passive aggression. They lack passion and a sense of ownership, and will simply stand by as the organization flames out. Traditional, change-resistant boards have made nonprofit governance a spectator sport.

I don’t see how a board can say, “We’re responsible for this organization. We know best,” then go out to a broad spectrum of the public and say, “Give us money to support our vital mission.” Unless you can enroll the broader public into that mission (perhaps not as members, but as stakeholders), we are heading for a wall in a big hurry. Ironically, by being too controlling and excluding participation, boards will end up harming the organizations they love and serve.


Joel J. Orosz is distinguished professor of philanthropic studies at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.