Though published just last week by CharityChannel, I wrote a cautionary tale several months ago. I warned about what can go wrong when a nonprofit board of directors succumbs to fatigue and settles for less than the best when hiring a new chief executive.
It turns out that the last lines of that post are haunting me now: At the end of December, the organization I wrote about closed its doors after over a century of providing its services to low- and moderate-income families.
Reasons cited for closure were decreasing numbers of clients resulting from changing demographics, heavy reliance on state and federal funding that had been cut, and several years of significant deficits. All true. And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether the situation would have been different if, years ago, the board of directors had not “settled” when selecting a new executive director.
Fiduciary Responsibility: Serious Business
That single board hiring decision served as the catalyst for hundreds of subsequent decisions. Decisions made by the executive director. Decisions made by the board of directors. Decisions made by the executive director and the board together as the organization’s stewards. Perhaps even decisions not to make decisions or contemplate crucial issues because of an absence of true leadership and strategic thinking.
The definition of fiduciary – to hold something in trust for future generations – is something I share with every board of directors as part of every engagement. It is fundamental to a board’s responsibility. Sometimes, though, thoughtful, well-meaning individuals who care about an organization and believe in the mission don’t do enough.
How did the leadership team of executive director and board of directors let this happen? It is an executive director’s job to raise issues with the board – even, or especially, troubling ones. It is the board’s responsibility to probe and ask questions of the executive director to gain deeper understanding of the issues facing the organization. Neither party can be asleep at the wheel. Each has to hold the other accountable. And if the executive director isn’t up to the task or the board of directors doesn’t have the right complement of members around the table…what then?
As we start this new year, let’s each of us resolve to be all in as nonprofit executives, board members, funders, donors, contributors, and consultants. Let’s promise ourselves, each other, and the clients we serve, that we will not shy away from the hard work of making difficult decisions and thinking boldly about the future.