Too Much Trust, Not Enough Skepticism

With all the talk in the news and on the blogs about the UJC lately, including the recent decision to trim expenses and staff, one has to wonder what place their Board played in the outcome.

JAFI has a B.O.G. meeting coming up in three weeks. One would assume topics for discussion will include the recent and continuing public IFCJ and aliyah department debacles.

These examples bring to mind the type of relationship that does (or should) exist between the board and the non-profits senior professional staff. Questions we should all be asking ourselves include:

  • What role should the boards of these organizations be playing?
  • What roles are they in fact playing?

Here with some thoughts on the relationship between a non-profit board, management, and accountability, eJewish Philanthropy welcomes this guest post by Ron Mattocks.

Nonprofit organizations, and in particular faith based nonprofits, are typically mission driven and place a premium on trust. Skepticism is often regarded as antithetical to faith. But faith and prudence are not mutually exclusive, and a complete lack of skepticism may not serve boards well when it comes to governing nonprofit organizations. During the Cold War, America developed its relationship with the USSR based on “trust but verify.” Parents of teenagers often deploy “tough love” in their relationships with their kids. In both cases, accountability is the issue, and a healthy dose of skepticism is the key to success.

It is perplexing that this wonderful community of nonprofit organizations, each passionate about a unique mission of service, can so often find itself challenged by financial distress, organizational failures, breaches of ethics, or even illegal activity. But there are no perfect organizations, and the nonprofit board must take the lead on corporate accountability. The board that does not develop discipline around accountability will ultimately fail in its governance.

Many assume that the call for accountability is a call for the board to hold management accountable. But the board must first hold itself accountable to the public and the constituents it serves, and then hold management accountable. There can be no double standards here; the board and management should be held to the same standards.

Too often the concept of accountability conjures up images of a board hostile to the CEO in its call for accountability. Some board members see it as their obligation to second guess the CEO at every step, as proof that the board is in control. But this approach often fails, leaving the organization paralyzed by the power struggle.

If you are a nonprofit board member, raise the bar for accountability. Begin with accountability at the board level by conducting a board self assessment, and reviewing conflict of interest policies. Then proceed to management, setting aside hostilities and building a supportive relationship, based on a healthy dose of skepticism. Trust but verify.

Ron Mattocks is the author of the newly released The Zone of Insolvency and has 25 years of experience working with nonprofits in all sectors, having served as a senior level executive, consultant, and board member for nonprofits with annual gross revenues ranging from $2 million to $2 billion. He’s the founding principal for Mattocks & Associates, a consulting firm focused on helping financially distressed nonprofits.