Families on Boards: What’s the Rub?

 

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July 8, 2013;St. Louis Business Journal

 

Recently, Angela Mueller reported in the St. Louis Business Journal that sixteen St. Louisans [each] serve on three or more of the region’s largest nonprofit boards (as ranked by operating budget) and five leading cultural institutions in the Zoo Museum District. “Together, they oversee organizations with total operating budgets of nearly $400 million and more than 2,800 full-time employees.”

Last week, after a little more digging, she noted another pattern that ought to raise a few eyebrows—and perhaps a red flag—for the St. Louis nonprofit community: four married couples and one set of three brothers who, among them, account for a total of 23 board seats. One of the couples serves together on the St. Louis Symphony board, and all three brothers serve on the United Way board.

In particular, there seems to be a great deal of overlap among a small number of board members serving the Zoo Museum District: One of the couples has all five of the district’s cultural nonprofits covered (a three-two split), while another has four of the five covered (three-one), plus one seat on the Symphony board.

In the initial article, Mueller referred to the 16 as “the St. Louis nonprofit dream team” and the “ultimate St. Louis board.” Apparently missing the point, the UMSL Daily at the University of Missouri-St. Louis ran a piece proudly noting that Chancellor Tom George was among the “dream-teamers,” and listing all twelve of the boards he serves on.

St. Louis is, of course, in fine company when it comes to an overlap of nonprofit board members serving a single community and bumping into each other coming and going at board and committee meetings, fundraisers, and other special events. And Chancellor George is hardly the only leading citizen who can’t seem to say no to an invitation to join a board.

Let’s assume—and there’s no reason not to—these busy board members have the best intentions. They are civic-minded, well-recognized community leaders, and some no doubt are in a position to make generous contributions.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

  • People often underestimate the level of commitment required to be an effective nonprofit board member. Some fail to ask exactly what is required of them in this role. Duty of care, duty of loyalty, and duty of obedience are big promises to make, and the more times you make them, the harder they are to live up to.
  • It’s been suggested that if you’re going to join a nonprofit board, you should consider the work of the organization to be among the top four or five priorities in your life. Most nonprofit observers would agree that the best board members are those who have a passion for the work of the organization. How many passions can anyone serve—especially on top of the highly demanding day jobs that many of the “usual suspects” have?
  • Nonprofit leaders and nominating committees continue to confuse status and/or wealth as substitutes for sound governance. Not everyone who is in a position to support a nonprofit or be a good ambassador for its work belongs on the board.
  • Diversity in the boardroom is more important than ever. “Samethink” from people who travel in all the same circles—or come from the same household—will not solve the complex challenges boards have to wrestle with these days.

Share your thoughts: How can nonprofit leaders—board members and staff alike—break the “usual suspects” habit and find ways to invite new people into the boardroom?—Eileen Cunniffe