What History Says About Nonprofit Board Roles

We’ve been wrestling with the functions of nonprofit boards ever since the start of the American experiment. That historical view provides a valuable lens for considering what responsibilities should be expected of today’s nonprofit boards of directors. And starting with a historical look is a fitting kick-off to this new blog, which seeks to distill scholars’ research into quick and useful lessons for nonprofit practitioners.

In Peter Dobkin Hall’s A History of Nonprofit Boards in the United States, four roles that nonprofit boards have been expected to play can be discerned: overseers, supporters, elders, and community representatives. Two of these categories will present no surprise to today’s trustee. Modern ears recognize that boards oversee the organization through their role as fiduciaries, tasked with providing sufficient supervision to ensure that the organization uses its resources to pursue its mission and not to benefit insiders. Additionally, as supporters, board members are typically expected to make the organization a focus for their charitable giving as well as their contributions of time and professional expertise.

The last two categories provide perhaps the most interesting fodder for today’s directors and officers to reflect upon. First, the role of elders. In the debate over how private voluntary organizations could best fulfill the public good, some favored direct political oversight, whereas the ultimately prevailing view (well, prevailing in part) depended upon independent boards of directors. But how should a board be constituted to carry about its responsibilities to the public?  As clergyman and Yale Professor Francis Bacon argued in 1847, the board should be “a deliberative body,” constituted to elicit “intelligent” examination over the actions of the organization and organized “to facilitate deliberation and discussion.” Bacon had no use for a ceremonial or celebrity board—he wanted an engaged body that brought wisdom to the review and approval of the organization’s activities.

Finally, boards as representatives of the community. Hall comments that, “governing boards … bear particular responsibilities for mediating between the internal culture of collective actors and their external environments.” This mediating responsibility necessitates that board members bring the concerns of the public to the organization and, conversely, advocate the organization’s view to the public. 

If boards are to function as representative of the community, they must consider the diversity of their directors. Nonprofit organizations are often seen as critical for democracy because they allow people who feel marginalized to come together for collective action. Consequently, the marginalized become participants in communities and in the structure of the polis. It is therefore troubling when the board make-up does not reflect the diversity of the public. Moreover, as noted by Garry Jenkins in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, a lack of board diversity negatively impacts decision-making. When boards lack professional, socio-economic, or constituency diversity, a single lens will come to dominate the board’s method of decision-making: mental maps, systems, and norms that were “useful tools can morph into pathologies.”

Seen through the lens of history, the work of boards is challenging but exciting: ensuring the organization’s fidelity to its purpose, supporting the mission with work and wealth, bringing wisdom through deliberation, and mediating between the public and the organization. Whether (and how) your organization expects the board to attend to each of these functions is a question worth discussing.

-John M. Bradley