Have any members of nonprofit boards really thought through the legal and moral responsibilities involved?
I'm not a lawyer, so I won't attempt to terrify you by providing an authoritative account of the legal responsibilities that are vested in the boards of nonprofit organizations. You can look that stuff up. Read it and weep.
Though not a lawyer, I am something of an armchair ethicist.(1) And the more I think about the ethical demands placed on nonprofit boards, the more clear it seems to me that no one could ever manage to live up to the nominal duties.
Let's consider BoardSource's list of the “Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards:”
- Determine mission and purpose.
- Select the chief executive.
- Support and evaluate the chief executive.
- Ensure effective planning.
- Monitor, and strengthen programs and services.
- Ensure adequate financial resources.
- Protect assets and provide proper financial oversight.
- Build a competent board.
- Ensure legal and ethical integrity.
- Enhance the organization's public standing.
Once I read the more detailed explication, it was clear to me that if anyone really fulfilled these duties, he would not only be unavailable for any other task, but would also be unable to get a good night's sleep.
It's #9 that clinches it for me: “ensure legal and ethical integrity.” How on earth is a board member supposed to be able to do that, when so often he is also mandated to keep his nose out of the day-to-day management of the organization? Reviewing the various job descriptions that are written for board members and chief executive officers, I realize that the division of labor seems designed for failure. The board members seem to have all the solemn responsibility of administering a public trust, and the CEO has most of the opportunities to abuse that trust.
Moreover, I know - and anyone who works on a day to day basis in a nonprofit organization knows this as well - that unless board members stand next to employees all day and watch them, it's difficult to ensure that everyone is really complying with policies set by the board.
In the long run, various kinds of audits and inventories can reveal patterns of ethical or legal violations. Moles and whistleblowers can also document bad behavior. But there's a real disconnect between the ultimate responsibility vested in the board, and its ability to ensure that high ethical and legal standards are met, and it's no wonder that liability insurance for nonprofit boards is a hot topic.
1) Like most nonprofit professionals, I am keenly interested in ethics, seeing it as a tool for constructing elaborate arguments that prove my utter superiority to the rest of humanity. I continually fail, but hope springs eternal.