Opinion: Self-perpetuating nonprofit boards need oversight
In 2018, Seven Days ran a series of articles regarding nonprofit organizations. They did a great service explaining to Vermonters how large the Vermont nonprofit sector has become, their CEO salaries, etc. Unfortunately, I believe they may have missed an important story.
They could have focused upon the large, self-perpetuating nonprofit boards that hire and oversee the CEOs, set their salaries, determine the nonprofit’s policies, and make the real decisions.
Now before anyone starts lambasting me, let’s agree board members are hard working, dedicated and toil in obscurity for no remuneration. And I am not disparaging the vital services these nonprofits provide Vermonters.
However, no matter how noble the cause, no matter how vital the need, the citizens of Vermont deserve more understanding of — and involvement in — these self-perpetuating boards. Moreover, the way the boards are chosen should change. And, let’s start by saying a large nonprofit is defined by $1,250,000 or more in revenue.
Getting named to a large nonprofit board is a bit of an enigma to the public. These self-perpetuating boards are guided by bylaws you can’t find on their websites (you have to call to get them). They are advised by nominating committees whose members aren’t identified, who recruit new members by means and at locations known only to themselves, screened by criteria never shown to the public, and then the new members are announced through a press release as if they just appeared from behind a magician’s cape.
These large nonprofits are where you go to get health care, renewable energy services, the news you read, colleges you attend, mental health services, apply for grants, etc. Here are just some of the nonprofits that are known by many: VPR, VTDigger, UVM Medical Center, Porter Medical Center, UVM, Vermont State Colleges, Vermont Community Foundation, Vermont Land Trust, The Flynn Center, VPIRG 501(c)4, Green Mountain Club, Vermont Law School, and there are a host of “large” human service organizations based in Middlebury, according to the data base assembled by Seven Days.
Is it important who sits on these self-perpetuating boards and how much the public is involved?
You bet it is.
Open up the recruiting process and there is a wealth of ideas, talent and energy just waiting for the right nonprofit CEO or Board Chair with vision and courage to reach out and grasp it.
For those nonprofit boards willing to seize that opportunity, here are five modest first-steps to open up the process:
•On your website encourage those who volunteer, support, contribute, and are in your service area to apply for the board. Not asking your most ardent supporters to apply sends a horrible message.
•Promote a much more open display of the bylaws that outline how the organization regulates itself. Any large nonprofit organization that doesn’t post (or link to) their bylaws on their website, shouldn’t get your charitable donation, period.
•Your board-recruiting paradigm should now be “crowdsourcing for board members.” Expand the pool from which you recruit new members from the present board members’ friends, acquaintances and “recommends.” Expand the recruiting sources and publicly list the organizations that will receive recruitment notices for new board members.
•Work to create new ways to include the public in your board activities. Begin by asking for ideas on your website. The creation of temporary committees composed of both board members and qualified public members is an excellent place to start.
•See the board and its activities from the public’s perspective, not yours. Consider adopting a formal plan to educate, inform, and enlighten the public about the board.
What will these newly “democratized” nonprofit organizations gain?
•More qualified board applicants to choose from in a tough recruiting environment. They will be a more diverse group with vastly different backgrounds and experiences.
•A more open, transparent, and inclusive process helps the public, your customers, and your fund raising base understand board activities that had been invisible and unknown to them in the past.
•This new openness and understanding will build a reservoir of goodwill and empathy when tough times and tough decisions come to a nonprofit as sometimes happens like at Springfield Hospital or Southern Vermont College.
•Those not chosen for the board could become an active pool of highly qualified folks ready to step up if needed. And innovative new ways can be found to harness their energies and talents.
•And most importantly for nonprofits this new openness may create new ways to raise funds.
I’m asking the most influential and powerful self-perpetuating nonprofit boards in Vermont to open up the process. It’s long overdue and something Vermonters will appreciate, support and reward. Please consider this commentary an open offer from me to speak with your board and explain these ideas.
Matt Krauss of Stowe is a happily retired state employee and a former Vermont legislator.
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