Member-elected Board or Self-perpetuating Board? Does it matter?
We have noticed what may be a trend in recent years away from boards that are elected by members and towards boards that elect themselves. There are several reasons for this phenomenon.
- Organizations that are new begin with a founding board that comprises the original membership required for registration. Focused on their new reason for being, they sometimes never seem to get around to developing a membership from among those who share their Mission.
- There seems to be less interest for people to “join” causes. At a time when social media allows self-expression without belonging to a formal organization, there seems to be less need and less interest in becoming a member of any one organization. It’s easy to support whatever need appears next. Crowdfunding is growing rapidly – with no organization at all.
- Closely related to this last one are the existing members of existing organizations. Older members are dying and the younger ones aren’t very interested in attending annual meetings. The decisions, including elections, seem “cut and dried” already anyway.
- Boards are often frustrated in finding the right kind of people to whom its Directors can pass on the torch. Why bother with a member-election when the board know better anyway who meets the need for governance in the future?
Does it matter?
Yes, it matters, because there is a very important element in organizational relationships that is lost in this transition. Accountability.
Every human being or group is accountable to another human being or another group. In the human universe there are no exceptions to this rule. True, there are many efforts to avoid accountability within groups, but I have found it rare for boards to deliberately try to avoid accountability. More often, there is a simple lack of awareness that there is any real benefit to building a strong membership to whom the board will be accountable.
What I find to be the most common is that boards are a group of healthy people who are so committed and have such integrity that members trust them to do the right thing even if that includes transferring the right to elect future board members to the present board members. Something important is being overlooked here.
It’s ironic that it’s the integrity of most boards that results in such strong trust that boards and members both forget that trust is based on trustworthiness. That’s all accountability is. It’s weighing the board’s performance in the scales and finding it worthy of trust. Or not. The process of accountability is neutral. It can result in re-election or change in board membership.
What appears to be a lack of interest is actually an accountability process that is so informal and without structure that it’s invisible. You can be sure, however, if it became known that the board was self-serving and damaging the organization, the membership would become aware and want to do something about it.
Members are the owners of not-for-profit organizations and churches. There are three basic rights of members that form the pillars of accountability that must be strengthened to maintain healthy organizations with healthy boards.
- Members have the right to assemble, directly or through their elected representatives.
- Members have the right to draft, revise and approve bylaws, the document that describes the two relationships between the membership and individual members and the relationship between the membership and the board.
- Members have the right to choose the board members to govern the organization or church that they own.
Each of these rights is accompanied with an equal responsibility. That is where it takes a trained board to assist the members to understand their rights and responsibilities and not to take the easy way out to excuse the members of their responsibility and weaken their right to elect their board in the process.
I have often said that if a board does not hold itself accountable, no one is likely to do it. That is a reality of life today, and forms the main reason why boards have to work to develop a membership, report regularly and with integrity to the membership, and encourage the membership to take the election of the board seriously.
Members and donors or funders are the root structure of the organizational tree. The board is the trunk, bearing the weight of everything that happens above it in the tree. Active members with a healthy flow of authority and resources to the board give the tree stability. Developing the root structure instead of allowing it to dissipate because it’s invisible and doesn’t seem to do anything useful is a very significant challenge for boards today.
Elections by members matter!