Sunday, December 14, 2008

In Whose Best Interests?

Any nonprofit has a dual obligation:  firstly (and always so), to its constituents -- be they members, visitors, clients, congregants, students, patients, or colleagues -- and by extension, the larger community that sustains it -- and secondly, to keeping itself financially stable, programmatically vital, and future-focused.  Overlaying this for museums and heritage organizations is the equally daunting obligation to their collections, which they hold in trust for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.  In a way, it's a lot like the image I've chosen to accompany this post -- layered, complicated, and right about now, feeling a bit cold and lonely.

It is the first of these obligations that has received great emphasis in nonprofit circles in recent years.  "Nonprofit boards owe their allegiance first to the community and only second to the organization," said Kelvin Taketa of the Hawaii Community Foundation in a 2003 Nonprofit Quarterly article entitled, A Gateway to 21st Century Governance:  Are We Ready?  That allegiance must be assured by active engagement of the people the organization touches, bringing them into the loop on the setting of priorities and program design.

That was 2003.  As 2008 draws to a close and the global economy plummets, constituent accountability and organizational stability have become quite starkly drawn for the nonprofit sector, with assets held in the public trust clearly hanging in the balance.  What do we make of food pantries with empty shelves, colleges with half-empty classrooms, museums with bare walls?  Is nonprofit governance ready for this?

At your next board, staff, volunteer or members' meeting try asking and talking deeply about these questions:  To whom is our organization accountable?  Does the organization govern and program to preserve its institutional interests?  Or does the organization govern and program in the best interests of its community?  How does the organization shepherd its human and financial assets to meet these interests?

Conversations like this help an organization develop aspirational, operational and ethical parameters that empower it in good times and bad.

Photo: Winter landscape by Cedric_MountainDwellerVie...

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