Tuesday, May 21, 2013


In seminary I was elected to be the student rep on the board of the school.  This was an extremely small school, six people in my class, maybe forty in the whole student body, four faculty members, a four-year program.  There was no good reason for me to be the student rep except that I was forty while most of the others were standard grad school ages, and -- frankly -- no one else wanted to do it.  My presentation to the board was a series of flipchart cartoons describing dysfunction, disenchantment, and wretched dynamics.  I was not appreciated by anyone.  I had not understood that the point of the student member of the board was not to be a prophet, but to assure everyone that the school was a wonderful place worthy of investment.  Since that time I’ve thought a LOT about boards.

At first glance, they would appear to be democratic and a deterrent to dictatorships.  But various forces quickly convert all governing boards, even the ones that are idealistic and nonprofit, into oligarchies if not cabals.  In fact, I found that only a few in-the-know members of my seminary’s board were actually studying the issues and making decisions.  They met quietly and separately, sometimes only by phone between meetings, and the rest of the board either didn’t know it was happening or ignored it.  Not even the Dean was part of this little caucus that controlled the future.

Here’s a brainstorm list of forces that cause this:

1.  Boards are chosen from a fund-raising perspective.  “Non-profit” does not mean non-financial.  Sustaining funds are vital to the existence of the organization.  If a person can build themselves in as part of “sustaining” the infrastructure, perhaps as CEO or in some other salaried position, they will certainly be profiting.  Some of the biggest salaries I know of are generated by management and employment in nonprofits like major churches, schools, and government.  The semantics of calling a do-gooder organization a “non-profit” has not been helpful.  Maybe NGO is more helpful, but not if they fund a private army.

As a minister, as part of the animal welfare movement, and as an environmentalist I’ve been to few board meetings where the subject was actually the ideal goal of the organization.  Once budget and specific employees have been addressed, that seems to be the end of the agenda.  Issues like “mission-drift” (the original goal morphing into something different, maybe not even related) or effectiveness or burn-out are too scary to take on in a group setting like a board meeting.

2.  Boards are often interlinked and develop a culture.  That is, a system of assumptions about what they are doing and how they are doing it.  Boards are often chosen by people already on the board, who tend to recruit people like themselves.  Soon the natural tendency to perpetuate one’s self-interest has become dominating. 

3.  No transparency.  Sooner or later there will be disagreement within or from outside the board.  The easiest way to resolve it is to go dark, avoiding power challenges and alternative solutions to the ones the board prefers.  Board members do not tolerate criticism well.  But transparency is also very easy to dispense with in a larger society where everyone is far too busy to attend yet another meeting or pay attention to complex issues.  A phone call to the board member’s home about meal time ought to get quick agreement.

4.  Friendship and business interests trump board responsibilities.  If arguing over a matter that isn’t crucial to one’s own point of view can endanger social embeddedness or business profit, it’s easy to just let it go.  Who will you lunch with?  Who will you sell to?  When big issues like the entitlement of the sexually divergent or the persistence of unjustified war come along, people tend to think they couldn’t have any impact anyway, so what difference can it make?

5.  Losing track of the original purpose and the collaborating constituency it generated in the first place, so that methods and subsidiary goals split the board.  At the moment the clearest example of this is in the environmental movement.  The article linked below explores this.  At first the Muir-type and Gifford-type people collaborated for the greater goal, but now they split.  http://www.alternet.org/environment/its-not-easy-being-green-are-some-biggest-enviro-groups-giant-sell-outs?akid=10443.299165.cPSzXo&rd=1&src=newsletter841000&t=7

Almost every group has binary forces at work in it, competing for money and energy.  Church congregations and whole denominations are notorious for these power struggles when there is a shift of the centrality of shared goals.  Sometimes the goal is achieved, like eliminating polio, but the group is reluctant to disperse so it invents a new goal, trying to graft it onto the previous one.  Why start a whole new machine when you can convert the March of Dimes to the March of something else?

6.  The status of it all.  Ladies who lunch love to be on the boards of elegant arts organizations like museums, but also to bravely promote compassion for the suffering, the stigmatized, the doomed.  Compassion and arts are considered markers for sophistication and moral justification for exceptional wealth.  For some people board meetings are a showcase for privilege, dressing well, attending the right events.  This is true even in small towns.  When royalty, movie stars, and rock musicians are involved, they attract the media, which is very helpful for success in everyone’s enterprises, whether charity or career. 

However, this does have a dark side.  People tend to think you are interested only in issues that affect you personally, so if you help hookers, then obviously you must be one.

7.  Privileged information.  Most directly, of course, insider knowledge of a monetary or military nature is a good way to get ahead in the world and being on a board does give access to things “outsiders” don’t know, which is why they’re defined as outsiders.  Some of this is theoretically controlled by laws and regulations, but for a small board with great power, meeting privately, that’s mostly ineffective.  No enforcement.

The bottom line is that even carefully designed and well-motivated organizations can fail, and one of the ways is by delegating control and rewards to a smaller subset that closes itself off and operates on its own terms.  I used to think that a corporation could be kept moral and effective by actively involved shareholders, but in an atmosphere where shareholders are only interested in profit above all other criteria, this becomes brittle and self-destructive.  The corporation we call the United States of America is a good example.  Cloaked in idealism, we conflate prosperity with virtue, a religious premise based on the assumption that money is a blessing from God.  This doctrine is self-serving when it is believed by the very rich.  If they really believed it, they wouldn’t be so anxious to keep everyone else down, calling it the “freedom to fail.”

My seminary came close to dying.  It is now a “distance-learning” center in a glass skyscraper in the downtown Loop of Chicago instead of being affiliated with the University of Chicago on the Hyde Park campus as it was when I attended.  The marble and paneled original building has been sold to the U of Chicago.  No one knows whether the seminary’s board decided on a justified path to success or simply chose an easier way to go.  It was a quiet decision made behind the scenes.  I, of course, was dropped from all mailing lists as soon as I began to be critical.  But I called the main denominational office and reinstated myself via high principles, so the principles were good for something.  I’m trying to figure out what else.

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