Nonprofit boards, religious or secular, have a legal and moral mandate to manage their organizations diligently, prudently, legally, and in ways consistent with their charters. This mandate seems self-evident, but every board encounters pressures that can distract from faithful action. If these pressures are not managed, they can weaken or destroy an organization. An organizational failure is always a failure of the organization’s board.
These cautions apply to all nonprofits, faith-based or otherwise. However, Friends boards have some special challenges and vulnerabilities that emanate from our testimonies, our distinctive business practices, and our demographics. There are four that I believe are worth examining:
- The inevitability of dual relationships among members of Friends boards
- Occasional incompatibility between traditional Friends processes and the operational needs of an organization
- Mistrust of professionals, especially non-Quaker professionals, in Friends organizations
- A failure of critical self-examination of some—not all—Friends who seem to feel that any action taken in a Friends context is automatically rightly ordered
I’m not alone in recognizing these challenges. Friends Journal has published several insightful articles in the past few years that discuss these concerns, particularly John Coleman’s “When Quaker Process Fails” (Oct. 2012) and Jane Mack’s “A Call for Courage in the Boardroom” (Nov. 2015). The struggles of many Friends organizations are common knowledge. Mack has called for boards to act with courage. I would add that acting with courage means acting with integrity. Failures of Quaker process and failures of courage are invariably failures of integrity.
Failures of board integrity can lead to mission drift, in which the survival and health of the organization or workplace is conflated with the furthering of the organization’s mission. A wise and experienced Friend once commented to me that “a founding board has a mission; all subsequent boards have an organization.”
We are a small sect; there are 14 times as many Catholics in Philadelphia as there are Friends in the entire United States. We know each other; we worship together; we develop friendships; and we work together. In the past 20 years, at every Friends meeting I have attended in the United States and the United Kingdom, I have encountered people that I know well; this experience is true for many Friends. We swim in a small pond; we keep encountering the same swimmers; and our relationships continue when we join a board. Board service, if conducted ethically, requires the integrity to stay focused on the mission of the organization even when other relationships might have a distracting impact.
Years ago I served on a board committee charged with interviewing applicants for a senior staff position. The front-runner was a person that I knew well. He presented himself well in the interviews, and others on the committee united in wanting to recommend him to the full board. But I hesitated; for years I had observed in him a mendacious and manipulative approach to work and personal relationships. And yet I didn’t mention this or dissent when the rest of the committee sought to recommend him for the position. I didn’t want to have to explain to him why he wasn’t recommended, nor did I want to incur his anger. He was hired and conducted himself in precisely the way I feared, causing serious conflict and disruption. I might have prevented this if I had acted with integrity, but I failed. I regret it to this day, and I’ve tried to behave better since then.
In another case, I watched board members look the other way when a disorderly board member abused his discretion. He interfered with the staff’s functioning and decision making, and caused serious disruption to the organization’s operations. Eventually his actions became so egregious, and the staff so demoralized, that the board reined him in, but it was too late to prevent damage. And the reason other board members waited so long to intervene? Many of them were members of the same monthly meeting and didn’t want the discomfort of open conflict with a fellow meeting member.
In the helping professions—medicine, nursing, psychology, etc.—dual relationships are firmly proscribed, as they are seen to interfere with the application of unclouded judgment. The same reason applies to boards, even when the small pool of candidates offers some risk of dual relationships. This needs to be managed, not ignored. It becomes an act of courage to manage these dual relationships with integrity, and to stay focused on the board member’s obligation of fealty to the organization.
Occasional incompatibility between Friends processes and the operational needs of an organization
Anybody who has ever worked for a Friends organization can tell stories of times when the sometimes-glacial pace of Quaker decision making can impede an organization’s mission. Quaker executives often struggle with the boundaries between their autonomy and the decision-making authority of a board. Quaker executives can sometimes be heard mumbling sotto voce: “Come on already; make a decision, any decision!”
Our processes can be like sand in a gearbox, especially when a decision must be made quickly. Many years ago a Friends organization needed to make a major policy decision as quickly as possible, in regard to a conflict with a regulatory agency. This is exactly the sort of issue that needs to be addressed by a board. However, the slow, deliberate, and careful discernment of the board almost caused a cascading set of new problems. One senior staff member reported to me a wish that they had actually voted. The executive harbored some thoughts that it would have been so much easier if the board had “just let me make the decision.”
That executive’s wishful thinking is worth noting here. When boards have difficulty or take too long establishing policies and directives, a culture can evolve that leaves to staff many decisions that should be the domain of the board. A common complaint from staff is that development and fundraising, a traditional responsibility of boards, is left to staff. Another complaint has been that program priorities—the true raison d’être of any nonprofit board—are determined by staff, with little more than a rubber stamp by the board.
In our monthly meetings, we strive for unity in our decision making, and sometimes meetings labor for years or decades on an issue. Sometimes they wait until someone moves away, dies, or somehow has a change of heart. LGBTQ-related issues are often an example of this. But this kind of delay is not always possible in Friends organizations where definitive decisions need to be made, often within a tight time frame.
It would be useful for Friends boards to discuss how the Quaker process they have been using helps or hinders their work. Out of that might arise new insights about how to manage decision-making processes. Quaker discernment processes are far more complex, flexible, and nuanced than is commonly thought, and can be used effectively and ethically to manage difficult time-critical issues. Boards would be well-served if they could assure that their business processes allow rightly ordered flexibility and efficiency, and move beyond simplistic applications of Quaker process.
Individual board members might also want to consider what situations would lead them to stand alone in opposition to a specific action. In my years of board service, I have sometimes disagreed with the prevailing sense of a board, but to date I have never stood alone to block an action. I have stood aside on decisions, and have sometimes asked to be minuted as opposed, but I have never been a single voice preventing board action. I would readily do so if I felt the issue at hand was sufficiently important or represented a legal or moral breach; however, that hasn’t happened. I mention my own discernment here because I have observed—and I know many others have observed—Friends whose threshold for blocking action is lower than mine. Sometimes standing alone can be an act of courage and integrity, but it can also be a bullying tactic and a usurpation of power, most especially when an individual resists or refuses participation in a clearness or discernment process.
Mistrust of professionals, especially non-Quaker professionals
Quakerism, at least in its liberal unprogrammed traditions, is a do-it-yourself discipline, without “hireling ministry.” This same culture has shaped the development of our organizations and facilities. Well into the twentieth century, many of them were staffed by Friends who had a leading, and perhaps some aptitude for managing an organization, but who did not bring professional skills or credentials to their work.
A Friends retirement facility that provided wonderful care for my father in his final decade was managed for many years by non-professionals from the community, with hands-on participation from board members serving in many capacities as de facto staff. Board members were involved with the lives of residents, and were integral to the operation of the facility. My father lived there near the end of the time when this sort of board-staff-resident relationship was the norm; it worked wonderfully for him, and brought him great comfort during his last years.
Times have changed, though, in all of our organizations and institutions. Credentialed professionals are often legally required: we need licensed teachers, nurses, social workers, mechanical engineers, CDL drivers, nursing home administrators, CPAs, lawyers, etc. The current executive of my father’s final home is highly trained, credentialed, and state-licensed.
But organizational cultures don’t change easily or quickly, and the old Quaker do-it-yourself culture sometimes clashes with the role of the professional in our organizations. Years ago I was asked to consult with a Friends facility that was struggling with staff morale issues. One complaint of senior (non-Quaker) staff was about board members interfering with their work and moralizing about how to work in a “Quakerly” manner (whatever that is).
At one meeting, a non-Quaker department head at a facility was particularly frustrated and disaffected by the moralizing tone of a board member and his interference with her work. She asked me: “Does [the board member] think I have no moral compass of my own?”
The failure of critical self-examination
It is dangerous and arrogant to presume that any action by a Friend or a Friends board must by definition be rightly ordered. Friends’ receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize 70 years ago doesn’t grant us moral perfection today; we need to stay open to the possibility—no, the certainty—of our own practical and moral fallibility.
I’ve led three efforts to develop and implement child safety policies, as mandated by the liability insurance companies and jurisdictions. In each of these efforts, the first responses heard were on the order of “We’re Quakers; we don’t need this!” Not everyone made this point, but in each case the meme of unexamined righteousness was present and expressed very powerfully. To the credit of all three of these groups, the need for the policy was eventually accepted, and effective policies were implemented, although often with ongoing grumbling and dissent.
In another case, I learned of a Quaker board’s resistance to establishing a conflict of interest policy, as recommended by an outside consultant. The board resisted it based on the idea that following Friends testimonies would be all the “policy” needed. Conflicts of interest are an ongoing challenge in any organization, and this sort of cavalier dismissal of it is a sure way to get an organization into trouble. (The organization that resisted the policy did in fact have to deal with some serious conflicts of interest.)
My purpose here has been to hold up for discernment the challenges that Friends boards encounter. This may be uncomfortable, but remember that unease can lead to transformation.
The search for courage and integrity in the boardroom is complicated and ongoing, made more complex by the special circumstances of our religious discipline and its testimonies. Boards and board members can benefit from careful discernment about the values, missions, and operations of their organizations. Rightly ordered action requires thoughtful individual and corporate self-examination, and the courage to undertake such a challenging process.