Who Has the First and Last Word: The “Big Donor” or the Lay Leader?

In response to last week’s article a reader raised a question about the “real decision-making process” in non-profit organizations. Every board of directors appreciates the members who are generous with their financial support of the organization, and those who are active as well as charitable have a special place in the minds and hearts of the professional staff as well as the lay leadership. At the same time questions are often raised as to the extent of the influence of the major donor(s) to an agency.

This is a very sensitive issue and it is important to work with these people in a most diplomatic, professional and understanding way. At the same time, the director and the key board members of the organization have a responsibility to be protective of the democratic process that can strengthen the organization. When the largest contributor has an undue influence on the decision-making process then it disenfranchises the other members of their ability to participate in the governance of the agency.

At the same time, neither the professional staff nor the lay leaders want to risk a substantial contribution by insulting someone who is financially committed to the goals, purposes, programs and services of a non-profit organization. How does one balance satisfying the donor and maintaining the integrity of the decision-making process? Is there really a way to balance both at the same time or does a choice have to be made that will have serious repercussions?

The key to understanding these difficult dilemmas and searching for equitable solutions is found in the leadership development program of the organization. When the agency has a well developed system for both cultivating donors and for integrating new leadership then the issue is addressed in the course of the donor becoming a lay leader. If donors are immediately placed in positions of influence and power without having an orientation to the culture and process of the agency this is a recipe for potential disaster.

Of course there is always a question of the “quid pro quo”, does the big donor expect to receive a position and title in return for their generous support of an agency’s services. Obviously the answer is not simple, and it is something that needs to be explained, and possibly negotiated, with the contributor. Of course, it is much easier when discussing capital projects (often referred to as “bricks and mortar” – building projects) and you are dealing with naming opportunities. Most of the time, when handled correctly and rooted in the organization’s approach to building and strengthening a strong governance process, the issue can be ameliorated to everyone’s satisfaction. of the organization

The leadership team when headed by a professional executive director and well educated lay leaders is the best way to maintain the highest standards in the non-profit organization. Both partners need to be invested and their efforts need to be synchronized. The organization is then in a better position to deal with these conflicts and is actually strengthened by the process. A board of directors is too valuable an asset to waste by not allowing the decision-making process to empower the volunteer leaders.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W. is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a private consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.