Info You Can Use: Doing Business With Board Members

Since I am on the topic of board decisions this week, Non Profit Law blog recently listed a link about non profits doing business with their own board members.

While it is natural for non profits to seek out people from specific professions/skillsets to be on their boards in order to provide some expert guidance and advice, things get a little sticky when it becomes necessarily to contract professional services.

Since board members often have a personal investment in the organization, they may tend to charge extremely competitive fees for their services. As the article notes, it can also be a little awkward to be talking about paying someone else to do work that a board member in the room is perfectly capable of performing.

The article notes that not only is it difficult to avoid having some business dealings with your board members, it may be hard to actually get good people to serve on the board if they perceive there will be undue scrutiny of how their professional and volunteer activities overlap.

However, it is important to have a conflict of interest policy for board service. Failing to have one and follow it create potential problems for the organization, especially given the role non-profits serve in their communities.

Experts say one danger of so many veteran board members is that a nonprofit could lose touch with how a community perceives the awarding of contracts to members of its own board.

“Public legitimacy and support are very important, and a more isolated board may not be as aware of that,” said Francie Ostrower…

[…]

Board Source , an organization for nonprofit boards recommended by the National YMCA, suggests that board members who want to do work for the organization should donate their services. If they can’t, they should follow the board’s conflict policies.

Other critics of the practice such as Joshua Humphreys, a fellow at Tellus Institute, a Boston policy think tank, take a dimmer view.

“Best practice for nonprofits is to draw a bright line between board service and doing business with service providers,” said Humphreys. “It creates divided loyalties between the public purpose of the charity and the private gains someone is motivated by.”

Siegel (Jack Siegel, Charity Governance) said the practice chips away at the independent thinking of board members who are the recipients of contracts, as they tend to side with their supporters on the board in other matters.

“If you see conflict (of interest), you can almost bet there are other problems in the organization,” Siegel said.

The article goes on to quote Siegel pointing out that it is difficult to hold the work of board members to the standard you should because you have a relationship with them. This point struck a sympathetic chord with me as I remembered some occasions in my career where the quality of the work by a board member was never in question, but changes to elements no one really liked were never requested for fear of offending the board member by questioning their style/taste.

One of the suggestions for eliminating the conflict is that the person leave the board for the duration of their company’s contract under the assumption that if the person is really invested in the success of the organization, they will extend the same discounts as they would when they were serving.

What the article doesn’t mention is that if they don’t extend the same discount it may actually be better for your relationship with the person. If all those involved feel that a fair market price is being paid for the work, there is less potential for resentment on the part of the service provider over sacrificing time and income on a difficult project and less hesitation on the part of the non-profit to assert that their standards be met.

Still, this is all easy to say in theory. In practice, you run into the old question, “how do you fire a volunteer?” When people generously provide time, energy and expertise, they are investing a lot of themselves personally. It can be difficult to refuse their help without making it seem like you are refusing them as a person.

That is why it is good to have a well-constructed conflict of interest policy to which to point. When the situation arises where a board member will start to do business with the organization in a significant way, you can point to the policy and note that providing the service will, of necessity, change the board member’s relationship with the organization and as such the following actions must be taken per the conflict of interest policy.

Board Source has some general information on conflicts of interest on their website and some samples conflict of interest statements for purchase and download. (I have never read them so I can’t attest to their usefulness.)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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