A Board of Directors is the governing body of a nonprofit organization and they are legally and morally responsible for fiduciary, strategic, and generative stewardship of the agency. The composition of a Board of Directors (BOD) has been a topic of much debate recently; specifically, many nonprofits are asking if, when, and how their clients might participate in board leadership.
While it is generally accepted that responsible governing boards have an obligation to understand the constituents they serve (Brown, 2003.), much of the research suggests that many times constituents on governing boards are seen as tokens and are not valued for what they can bring to the board. Based on informal interviews from nonprofit practitioners, we have identified a few governing boards that embrace and encourage primary recipient participation while others resist having constituents on the board. There are also some organizations that encourage potential board members to accept services so they may meet the criteria from funders for constituents as part of the board composition.
Client Participation: An Example of Board Diversity
In 1964 President Johnson reinforced the belief that organizations could and should benefit from primary recipients of services participating in the governance of the organizations they receive services. President Johnson stipulated that boards of low income housing projects must have direct recipients of services as voting members of the board (US Department of Health and Human Services, The Office of Community Services, 2004.)
Currently several State and Federal government funding agencies either require primary recipients to participate on specific boards or take in consideration board composition when reviewing applications for funding. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires that two people who do not have a home or have been recently homeless participate in the local governing board of the Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP) as a funding requirement. (CRS Report for Congress 2005).
Potential Benefits of Client Participation
There are a number of potential benefits to client participation on the BOD. Clients as voting members of the board may have increase social status allowing for greater opportunities to advocate for the organization and services. The organization may experience increased status within the community in general based on their inclusion of recipients of services. The BOD and administration of organizations would have the ability to gather firsthand knowledge of how their services are utilized and where improvements can be made.
Perceived Challenges in Client Participation
There are also some perceived challenges for nonprofits attempting to integrate their Boards with service recipients. Some nonprofit organizations cite personnel confidentiality as the primary reason for not including recipients of services on governing boards. Additionally, it was revealed in a confidential conversation with an executive director that the director felt the learning curve would prevent recipients of services from contributing to the governing board, “We need professionals who know what they’re doing. We don’t have time to train people.”
These challenges are not insurmountable. In fact, the benefit of including clients as voting members of the BOD may far out weight any challenges that might be encountered.
What do you think? Join in and share your thoughts about board diversity. If you have questions, ideas, or resources, please comment below.
- A 1979 article entitled “How to keep your mandated citizen board out of your hair and off your back: A guide for executive directors” by Steckler & Herzog was published by the American Journal of Public Health. Although the title of this article is irreverent, the article offers solid advice on how to recruit, train, and support mandated citizen boards. View it at: http://ajph.aphapublications.org/cgi/reprint/69/8/809
- Board Source
- Board Café
CRS Report to Congress, 2005. Accessed on the internet April 23, 2011 Retrieved from http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RS22286.pdf
Brown, W. (2002). Inclusive governance practices in nonprofit organizations and implications for practice. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 12 (4), 369-385. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/nml.12404/pdf