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

  • Judy Berkowitz

    Great points discussed in this article. There are those rare people (and I know a few) who CAN give their all to more than on St. Louis non-profit organization however, the best Board members, in my opinion, have five “fits” which have nothing to do with money or power or connections (although don’t get me wrong, those attributes can help):
    1) Fit with the Mission – They get it. They have personal experience. They really want to help with a particular agency’s focus;
    2) Fit with Time – They understand and have the time it will take to serve on a particular Board on in a certain position on that Board.
    3) Fit with Talent – They have skills that my agency needs and are willing to share them.
    4) Fit with Work – They have the support of their employers to be on a Board; to be involved in the community in a meaningful way. (On the flip side, a current Board members’ work responsibilities can “heat up” and the fit may be wrong for awhile. Knowing when to step BACK for a time or step OFF the Board is key.)
    5) Fit with Family – They have the support of spouses / partners. If single parents, they have the support to care for their kids and run the carpool when a Board or committee meeting is scheduled. Their Board membership enhances the family rather than detracting from it.

  • Luv_Eclair

    I love reading a well written article! I’m not from St. Louis, but was searching for information about family members on boards and conflicts of interest. From what I see, it can be (and probably is) a lot worse to have a small number of people on a large number of boards (people chosen because they have influence and connections), than to have a family member or two on a large board. We (my family and I) want to start a nonprofit, and it seems that to begin we need to” just get on with it” since we’re the ones passionate about the cause; it shouldn’t matter that we happen to be related, and hopefully others who are passionate about the cause will join in too as time goes by and the board will be filled by others. Anyway, it’s sad that related board members can’t be judged on their activities and merit but are automatically considered to have a conflict, while others get away with not doing much or they in actuality have conflicts aside from being related. I understand completely the problems with nepotism, but it isn’t always a problem or the worst problem.