A Conversation About Politics and Conflict in the Nonprofit Boardroom

It’s 7:00 pm on a Tuesday night and the Board of Directors of an education nonprofit is working their way through the meeting agenda when someone says, “I think we need to take a stance on gun reform.” Within a matter of seconds, every board member is engaged in a heated conversation over gun reform, politics, and their organization’s place in the debate.

Conversations like this are becoming more and more common for nonprofits in the current political climate. Confronted with similar challenges, private businesses have developed values strategies, which are strategic plans built around a set of values a company embodies and defends. Nonprofit organizations, on the other hand, have historically been able to remain neutral on many issues due to the protections of the Johnson Amendment. But now, the amendment is under threat and the administration could potentially remove remove nonprofit protection. This left us wondering if nonprofit organizations should take the time to develop a values strategy and if so, what should this strategy look like? Additionally, what should be done if board members have conflicting values?

To answer these questions, Cause Strategy Partners interviewed five exceptional leaders in business, government, and academia with years of experience serving on nonprofit Boards of Directors:

  • Shannon Schuyler, Chief Purpose Officer and President of PwC Charitable Foundation, PwC
  • Ambassador Richard Grenell, U.S. Embassy & Consulates, Germany
  • Mitch Roschelle, Partner and Business Development Leader, PwC
  • Dr. Charles Middleton, former President, Roosevelt University
  • Adam Stanley, Chief Information Officer and Chief Digital Officer, Cushman & Wakefield

These five leaders, who generously give their time, talents and treasure to serve social good organizations offered their insights on overcoming boardroom conflict when things “get political.” From the conversation, four common themes emerged:

  1. Be Prepared

When considering whether or not a nonprofit organization should develop a values strategy, for Shannon Schuyler the answer was clear: yes. With the dramatic shifts in the nonprofit landscape, organizations no longer have the luxury of being neutral bystanders in the political arena.

“Nonprofit boards are being thrust into the middle of these discussions and need to be both wary and prepared while navigating through these situations — especially organizations that have missions closely tied to politics or advocacy.” – Shannon Schuyler

Nonprofit boards should proactively brainstorm the challenges they may face and craft appropriate responses. For an education nonprofit, the response to policy affecting education seems obvious. But what if they were asked to join a coalition advocating for sensible gun reform? Their immediate response may be, “that is outside our purview.” But would this still be the case if they considered the dramatic increase in the number of school shootings?

“Boards have to ensure that their strategy not only makes the public happy but also protects the organization and is aligned with the organization’s mission.” – Shannon Schuyler

  1. The Answer is in the Mission

Attempting to maintain a balance between a comprehensive strategy and the organization’s purpose can be difficult, but the most effective tool board members have to ensure that they are on the right track is by going back to the heart of the organization: the mission. Board members must uphold the Duty of Obedience, the legal obligation to act in faithfulness to the organization and its mission. Decisions the board makes must be anchored in and supported by the mission statement.

Boards can risk falling short of this obligation when they attach their own biases and perspectives around what the mission should be rather than what it actually is. Revisiting the gun reform question posed earlier, the board members could have prevented the larger conflict by leaning on their mission to guide the discussion, rather than their own personal values.

“It’s really important to have a diverse board because each member brings a new perspective and value to the conversation. However, it is crucial that everyone on the board understands what the organization’s goal is – rather than their own.” – Ambassador Richard Grenell

  1. Leave Your Self-Interest at the Door

While the first two themes require collaborative efforts, one simple practice that an individual board member can employ is to check their self-interests at the boardroom door.

“Board members have a duty to the organization. This duty is to help sustain and grow the work.  Any other beliefs a board member hold must take a back seat to that primary goal.” – Mitch Roschelle

Along with the Duty of Obedience, board members have a legal obligation called the Duty of Loyalty, which requires board members to act in the best interest of the organization, never in self-interest. An effective method to ensure a board member upholds this duty is to prioritize and embody the organization over personal politics and values.

“Regardless of personal values system, board members are all there for a common purpose and are equals in this process. You have to treat one another with mutual respect in order to be an effective board.” – Adam Stanley

  1. Be the Board the Organization Deserves

The final theme shared by these board leaders was simple: never stop growing. As boards develop, there is a temptation to find a comfortable routine and to remain there. While it is rewarding to feel content in board service, board members should never be complacent. To survive challenges — both internal and external in nature — organizations need strong and committed leadership to navigate turbulent waters. Being open to ongoing governance training and board development, for example, helps ensure that the board is composed of committed and engaged governors prepared to help guide the organization through challenging issues.

“Envision the board as an organic being with a dynamic heart and soul that is constantly reimagining itself. This is similar to our own selves in the sense that an organization is always becoming and never becomes.” – Chuck Middleton

Thank you to each of our interviewees for taking the time to share their invaluable knowledge and experiences with Cause Strategy Partners. It was an honor to have your voices in this piece.

 

By: Royce Nitta, Graduate Intern (Summer 2018)

Royce Nitta is an Associate with Cause Strategy Partners. As a Corporate Leadership Fellow at CECP, Royce has been conducting research on corporate philanthropy and CSR trends and supporting companies with community development initiatives. Royce received his B.A. from University of California, Los Angeles and is currently pursuing his M.P.A. from NYU-Wagner. 

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