A New Paradigm for Boards of Jewish Nonprofits

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By Sherwin Pomerantz

Those of us who are lay leaders of nonprofits are fed a regular diet of emails from self-styled gurus who seem to make more than a decent living doling out prescriptions for (a) how best to manage boards of directors; (b) the relationship between lay leadership and the professional staff; (c) how decisions get made in such frameworks, and the like.  

For the most part, what we are told is that there is a certain established framework that governs all of this and that good board governance occurs when that framework is maintained. My problem with this theory is that the framework is a product of a culture that no longer exists and, as a result, may no longer be dependable as a model for good nonprofit governance.

What do I mean?

The standard model that most professionals build their advice around is based on three core premises:

·         There are fixed rules that govern the lay/professional relationship.

·         The real work of the board is handled by committees where the recommendations of the committees are brought to the board for discussion and vote.

·         Because the committees have handled all the small details the board only has to hear the report of those committees and, after some discussion, vote to accept or reject the committee’s reports.

As a matter of fact, for those boards that run their meetings based on Robert’s Rules of Order, the only thing that can be discussed at a board meeting is either a motion properly made and seconded or a committee report that, by itself, becomes a valid motion for consideration.

The challenge that presents itself today is that this overall framework was developed during a period of time when society had trust in the institutions of government, whether the “government” was of a nation or an institution. 

In such a period, individual board members trusted both the professional and lay leadership to guide the organization in a sensible manner, observing a series of socially accepted norms and, more or less, not overly concerned that any information was being intentionally kept from the board members themselves.

Today, however, trust in political government has eroded to the point where it is difficult to identify any country, whether a democracy or a dictatorship, where a large percentage of the population has trust in the government.

A 2019 Pew study of the subject reported: “When the National Election Study began asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters (75%) of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. Currently, 21% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they can trust government, compared with 14% of Democrats and Democratic leaners.”

Internationally a recent OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development) study showed that for member countries just 45% of the population trusted their governments. It is a good bet than in dictatorships, most of which are not members of OECD, the number is even less.

For the world population as a whole, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report indicates that just 20% of the world’s population believes that “the system,” that is the social milieu in which they live and work, is actually working for them. This translates further into a general lack of trust.

In a society where the social contract is so lacking in trust, it is only natural that this lack of trust will make its way into the nonprofit world as well.

And that takes us back to my opening thesis, that the principles of good board governance which have been elemental to western society for probably the last 100 years will not work smoothly in a society where there is such an endemic lack of trust. This plays out in board members often not trusting the professional staff to be fully open with them. Or, in other cases, where the lay leadership is accused or suspected of not practicing the principles of full disclosure to board members. And the list goes on.

If it is true then that the culture of trust has changed so dramatically that a new model for board governance is necessary, how do we get there?

I do not believe that the baby has to be thrown out with the bath water. The basic structural elements in our community organizations can remain. However, the interaction between those elements needs intense study and debate as it is no longer possible to rely on the operational models of past years in a time of radical societal change.

This task cries out for collaboration as every organization in our community is facing the same challenges. Once a community admits to the existence of the problem, five or six nonprofits in that community should create a joint task force to explore together possible new forms of board governance that can be operational in a non-trusting world. There may be a need for an outside facilitator as well to keep the dialogue moving and enable the process to actually come to productive conclusions. However, like any challenge, with sufficient attention and commitment solutions can be found.  In addition, of course, there may even be side benefits to the collaboration that will result in a more efficient use of the community’s assets.

Am I optimistic that this can happen? As a born optimist I am. To that end I remember the words of former Czech President Vaclev Havel: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” 

We need to do what makes sense, sooner rather than later.

Sherwin Pomerantz has lived in Israel for 36 years, is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based business development consultancy, former National President of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel and Israel Board Chair of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.