Dear Nonprofiteer, Is This A Dangerous Liaison?

Dear Nonprofiteer:

My problem seems small and particular from where I’m standing, but I think it might be of general interest.  I write from a small independent artsy college.  Which art we practice, I’m sure you don’t need to know.  We do fine.  Charge a lot of tuition, bring in more than enough revenue to meet our needs, keep the students happy enough, satisfy the accreditors.  I have tenure and I can work on the side too.

Some of my colleagues want to start up an independent committee to serve as liaison to the Board of Trustees.  We’d be elected, a group of three, and we’d attend Board meetings twice a year.  Our president and CEO, High-Hat Hattie, has the Board wrapped around her little finger.  All they know, they learned from her.  High-Hat Hattie doesn’t love the idea of a liaison committee but will succumb if we push. 

I don’t necessarily want to disabuse the Board of anything, but if I (and others) can get their ear, maybe I could make the institution better.  Should we go ahead?  Or leave well enough alone?

Signed, Secure but Questing

Dear Secure:

You seem in a perfect position to take on this assignment: you can’t be fired (ain’t tenure grand?) and the worst that can happen is a couple of unpleasant meetings followed by resignation from the committee.  Whereas the best that can happen is (1) you can educate the Board about the institution, education they’re currently receiving from a single source you deem unreliable; and (2) you can get educated about the Board’s work for the institution, and possibly help communicate to your faculty colleagues the rationale for Board decisions.

If the Board is better-educated, it will work better on behalf of the college.  This is more an article of faith than something the Nonprofiteer can document; but she believes it nonetheless.  Specifically, she believes that governors of an institution who become aware of all the things it could do if it had more resources are more inclined to help secure those resources.  Your college may "do fine," but perhaps it could do better–admit more students who can’t pay your tuition, say, or provide a broader or deeper curriculum–with more money.  And if money is what you want/need at a nonprofit, there’s no substitute for firing up the Board.

You don’t have to think of your role as "disabusing the Board of anything" but simply as offering, in your person, a statement of what the institution does, how well it does it, and how much better it could be done with a little additional assist from the Trustees.  If, in the course of this statement, a Trustee raises questions about Hattie and what she’s been doing all this time–well, that’s what the Army refers to as "collateral damage."

And don’t underestimate the value of your learning about the constraints Hattie and the Board face as they govern the college.  Maybe those constraints are primarily self-inflicted–the Board is too small, too timid, too lazy, or Hattie is too maternalistic, too comfortable, too controlling–but if so, you’ll be able to make a difference soon enough.  ("Why don’t we recruit Ms. Rolling-In-It whose daughter graduated from here last year?")  And if not, you’ll be better satisfied with the college and better positioned to spread that satisfaction around the faculty once you’ve seen what the Board and Hattie are grappling with.

Just one word of caution (which you clearly don’t need but your committee colleagues may): the liaison committee should not be involved in personnel issues, that is, should not serve as a channel for the grievances of individual employees (faculty or staff).  If Hattie is generally unreasonable about personnel, that’s something that can be gently inserted into general conversations about staffing or compensation; but individuals who have a problem with her should solve it individually (or grieve to the union, if you have one) and not through you. 

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