A Different Take on Sustainability (May 07)

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One of our staff members, Kristin Barrali, had a son two weeks ago — Angelo. She worked right up until Friday before but had been calling me periodically for the last month with her standard joke, “By the way, I just had my baby!” It was never true until Monday morning. She called from the hospital a few hours after giving birth to say, “I won’t make the staff meeting. I just had my baby.” She didn’t even sound tired.

As I count my blessings now including Angelo, I think back on the birth of my own son (almost too long ago to remember). Unbeknownst to me, I brought more than just a baby home from the hospital. A serious staff infection came with us as well and it lurked around literally for years, causing repeated sickness and surgeries for me and for him and eventually for his little sister who, I am afraid, got the worst of it.

Just this past Saturday I read in the Boston Globe that local hospitals are beginning to key their CEO’s salaries to their ability to lower the rates of such infections rather than, or in addition to, the usual stuff like building endowment. I think this is very exciting because it acknowledges the seriousness of the medical profession’s oath to “first, do no harm” and translates that to a priority charge to leadership with salary consequences.

In the same issue of the Globe, someone was interviewed about the Northern Ireland accord and he talked about understanding what appears to be evil as being essentially the “absence of good.” To me these two articles went together. How many of us in the organizations we lead fail to actively consider in vivid human terms the harm that we may inadvertently be doing by not scrutinizing our own programs? How many nonprofits key executive salaries primarily to the aggressive pursuit of what is absolutely best for the constituents they serve?

Richard Brewster, the executive director of the National Center for Nonprofit Enterprise discusses this in the linked interview entitled More Than Monitors: the Board Role in Sustainability that will be printed in the summer issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly. He surprised me during the interview with his strong opinions about what must lie at the core of nonprofit economic sustainability. I hope you find his take on the issue as provocative as I did.