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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Public and Non Profit Boards – What’s the difference? - Spencer

I had a minor epiphany during the 5/25 class, one that is probably a no-brainer to someone less jaded in the world of public service – There are significant differences between public and non-profit boards. The simple statement lends credence to the fact that I must have been in this field for way too long (if I keep staying up late working on blogs, someone might eventually solve that problem for me via a summary dismissal!) The fact remains that my entire outlook on “boards” has been shaped by exposure to and work with the public variety. Thus, I understandably view things through a public-board lens.

My “moment” came during a discussion involving board diversity. Never have I consciously considered the fact that board members can be actively recruited based on diversified skills, knowledge, abilities, ethnicity, profession, or bank account. Sure, these are all unspoken, “behind the scenes” considerations when a sub-set of a public governing board selects what amounts to advisory committees, such as zoning commissions, recreation commissions, transportation safety boards, or a host of other subsets of governance. However, what we are talking about here (in the public sector) is the top dogs, king fish, daddy-rabbits of boards – those which rule local government. (forgive me – I grew up in the south and colloquialisms have cut me deeply - you’re likely to endure more if you choose to continue reading anything I draft). These fine folks are chosen – obviously – by popular election. Popular… Let’s reflect on that word for a minute.. Knowledge, Skills, Abilities, Ethnicity, Profession, even bank account? Yes, I daresay that all of these, or a combination of just a couple, could make one eminently “popular” enough to gain a seat on a board via public selection. In some cases, a strong showing in only one category might do the trick, especially if the opponent is particularly weak.. or non-existent. Sometimes, all that is required is being, well, popular. The fact remains though, that the board, whether qualified or not, is ultimately selected- and subsequently retained or replaced – by those who are to be governed.

NPOs are another animal entirely. While many perform what is a decidedly “public” function, they are far less constrained by the confounded politics of it all. Again, reaching from the depths of my fall to the pit of public service (and danged if it doesn’t feel like that some days), it goes against every fiber of my heretofore indoctrination to suggest that we pigeon-hole a position on a board and actually play to our weakness, trying to fill a gap which is so desperately gaping (e.g.: “Wow, we sure could use someone with legal experience”; or “If we had an accountant on the board, we surely wouldn’t be in the red.” ). In MY experience, we take what we get and put on a happy face. In my world, boards are whatever the public decides is best, which is often decided by which side of the ever-widening universe has the largest war chest. The ability for the sitting board to actually be able to direct vacancy replacement, based on weakness of the whole and for the betterment of the organization is, well, revolutionary. The ability of the CEO to actually be able to offer professional advice and perhaps even influence this decision approaches bliss.

OK. I’ll turn off the super-sonic drama switch and slide back into reality. The point I am trying to make is that there is a fundamental difference between public and private boards, one which profoundly influences the environment in which CEOs operate. In the public sector, you play the hand you are dealt by the public; in the NPO arena, if you are supremely lucky, you may just have a dog in the hunt when it comes to seating the board which may not steer your ship, but sets the course. Consider the possibility of being able to help select your bosses, based on what your organization really needs. Not too shabby indeed.

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