Ownership and its Discontents

Many years ago the Nonprofiteer lived briefly in a cooperative apartment building, which looks like a condominium building but differs from it in a fundamental way. In a cooperative, owners don’t own their units: they just have long-term leases. What they own instead is stock in the landlord—a corporation whose sole asset is the building.

Being landlords, coop boards act like landlords: they determine who may move into the building, and what sort of alterations may be made to the units, and even how much heat any individual owner receives. As a result, coop owners are deeply involved, monitoring Board actions closely because those actions may intrude significantly on their lives. At the same time, they’re favorably disposed to any regulation promising to maintain or enhance the value of their units. They’re prepared to accept considerable restrictions on their own freedom of action for the privilege of restraining others’ freedom of action. The entire system is like living in the United Nations—for better and worse.

This came to the Nonprofiteer’s mind because in the past week she’s facilitated two Board meetings at which people have threatened to quit. (Perhaps this suggests she should alter her style of facilitation, but she prefers to think that she’s just making people face the hard questions.) At the first meeting, a Board member confronted for the first time with a clear statement that he was expected to make a personal financial contribution announced, “If I don’t get credit for using my corporate connections, I quit!” At the second, the Executive Director responded to a consensus that individual counseling was outside the agency’s mission by saying, “If you’re telling me I can’t listen to people’s problems and try to solve them, I quit!”

If people threaten to quit while talking about difficult issues like money and mission, what does that mean? It’s obviously necessary to press on the most sensitive spot, the issue that needs to be resolved before anything else can be accomplished; but is “I quit!” (whether acted upon or not) the only possible response?

People who serve on nonprofit Boards do so out of passion for the agency’s cause, and what they get in return for their commitment of time and energy and money and belief is a sense that they own the agency. When an “owner’s” understanding of the agency is challenged or contradicted, naturally it feels as if his/her property is being stolen. “I quit!” means “I’ll throw this in the trash before I let you take it from me.”

It’s good that Board members consider themselves owners of the agency, but bad that so many of them misunderstand the nature of that ownership. They don’t own their own little condominium understanding of the agency’s mission or its means of achieving it. Rather, they co-own the agency with the rest of the Board, and it’s the whole Board that owns the understanding of mission and means.

This often makes Board membership difficult for people who are natural leaders. They’re accustomed to acting without consultation, or with the kind of consultation that acknowledges their superior knowledge and/or power. But on a nonprofit Board, those who act without consultation risk either distorting the mission to match their private vision or provoking the adoption of significant restrictions on everyone’s freedom of action to prevent that distortion from taking place. Neither is a good outcome.

The ideal circumstance is for all the owners to realize that they’re members of a cooperative group whose sole asset is the institution, and that securing that asset’s well-being is the task they all face together. When that’s clear, disputes about what the institution is or does or deserves from its Board members can be negotiated among all the owners, and no one says “I quit!”

Now, how to get there?


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4 Responses to “Ownership and its Discontents”

  1. Amy Wishnick Says:

    Kelly, wonderful analogy! Can you imagine a board solely of “home owners” who don’t understand common walls and common space?

  2. Mazarine Says:

    Wow, I’m facilitating a board training soon, Ulp, I hope none of the board members decide that they would rather quit than change how they do business in the nonprofit!

    My pre-meeting surveys have already elicited some pretty harsh responses, and I am worried that people may not really understand how to be on a board, or understand their responsibilities. I am also afraid I’m pushing people too hard, too fast to become fundraisers. but if this nonprofit doesn’t get some volunteer fundraising happening soon, it will never grow.

    I think pushing people where they are reluctant to go will work out in the end, it’s just a question of asking them where they want to grow.



    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Obviously, your approach and mine are similar in their straightforwardness. A gentler colleague of mine, though, suggests responding to recalcitrance by identifying its consequences: “You’d rather quit than change the way you do business. If you do, the agency will collapse. Is that what you want?” She also suggests that simply acknowledging the process helps people feel less threatened: “I can hear that this is very important to you, so let’s talk about that.” Her philosophy is, people will do many things if–and only if–they feel heard. I hope to adopt both of her suggestions in my future meetings; perhaps you’ll find them useful, too.

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