I have and am serving on a number of boards. I’ve always made sure in their prospecting interviews, that people know that I am not a person of financial wealth. I will and do make contributions to the extent of my financial ability but those contributions are small.
Despite this, I’ve been invited to serve on boards for two reasons: to increase their diversity profile and because of the title & reputation I had as director of a cultural economic development program that was known to get things done. When I left that job after 9 1/2 years, I quit a couple of boards because my participation on the board was clearly tied to my job. Without the title, I had no value. (Cool.)
At a recent meeting of the Board of Trustees of an organization on whose board I serve, a fellow board member announced that there were 3 members who had not made their annual contributions and that we needed to before the end of the fiscal year, June 30. “So, I’m not alone,” I thought and was surprised. In previous years I’ve always made my modest contribution early but not this year. I had been carrying around a check to make a contribution but in this new freelance world I live in, cash flow is spotty and I didn’t have the money yet to make the contribution.
After the meeting ended, in the milling around, she came up to me and said, “I really don’t like to be in the position of having to nag or police my fellow members.” (I forget what word she actually used because, of course, I was so embarrassed.) I told her that I had been out of a full-time job since August, that I was expecting some money to come in and that I would be giving my contribution when it came. “You can give a dollar,” she said. “We just need everyone to make a contribution so that the annual fund will be complete.” (She might have used another word, but that’s what she meant.)
The bad twin in this Gemini thought for a minute that I ought to whip out a dollar or ten dollars from my purse and hand it to her (out of the $50 I had budgeted for the incidentals of my trip to the board meeting). The good twin said, “Naw, that wouldn’t be right.” So I didn’t. “You’ll get the check,” I told her and walked away.
It’s all about money, I’d written earlier in the meeting as I was doodling and taking notes. Money drives boards. It’s the most important way you can show your support for the organization. At this particular board and at most of the others I’ve participated in, the folks with money hang together. At this board, the folks with money generally stay in the same hotel and therefore bond and collaborate at late night gatherings in the hotel restaurant or bar or some other nearby place. The folks with money can travel to the board meetings that are far away from where they live. They can participate in an exploratory trip to a country in Africa for a potential program the organization is exploring starting there (where one of the board members has a home). Some can plan return trips to this African country even though the political situation means that starting a program there will be impossible for a while.
I ain’t mad at them. I’m not even jealous. I just know I am not one of them and so will not be in with the in crowd. This board member and a couple of others on this board and others, barely interact with me and others like me, How do I know this? We’ve talked about it. I feel like they knew quickly from our first association that I don’t bring money to the table and so their interactions with me are limited. Perhaps being around people without money makes them feel uncomfortable. (Like being around people with money is often challenging for me.) Perhaps money is the common ground that matters to them.
Another board member announces, casually, that there’s a consultant who wrote this book that he wants to bring to spend time with the board and the organization. “It’ll cost $35,000 to bring him” he says. “He’s well worth the money and I’m ready to write a check and get it going.” Good for you, I think. I also know I won’t be contributing to that fundraising effort. I don’t have it like that. I will pay for one student to attend a summer program that I’m working on with another board member but that’s all that I can do.
I also think, how do I get to be a $35k consultant? Hell, I’d settle for $15k.
Maybe I should have sat-out this board meeting, saved the $100 on the bus ticket to get to the location and the $25 for the “unsponsored” dinner. Sending a $125 contribution might have been more important than my actually coming to the meeting. (Ironically, I had the most fun and engaged more fully with more people at this board meeting than I had at previous ones. Luckily the money stuff came up towards the end of the meeting. If it had come up earlier, it would have greatly influenced my ability to “hang” because my mortification would have made me withdraw.)
So, what do I bring to a board? Knowledge of programs, knowledge of communities of color, knowledge of how to diversify a funding base, knowledge and relationships with several funders, experience writing grants and planning programs, experience creating a multicultural group of multi-year volunteers, the willingness to recruit students and participants, etc. But none of this brings money to the table. Money matters.
Knowledge, ideas, and vision, while great, are just not enough, especially on non-profit boards.
I’m on another board whose work I truly believe in and love. This organization and the program I formerly directed came of age together. The board is filled with a delightful mix of people from the community it represents as well as from people outside but with great affinity for this community. We are diverse. There’s only one board member I know who is a person of wealth on this board. There are a few others who are solidly comfortable. As a board, we do not have the juice to raise the money to create a full-time position to hire a temporary worker who has turned out to be a wonderful asset to the organization. And he is young! (The rest of us are mid-lifers and we need to bring younger people in.) The visionary who started the organization is getting burnt out and is tired of drawing a small salary (although she clearly “has it like that” or wouldn’t have been able to work for years without any salary at all.) She does deserve to be paid because she’s done important, community-changing work.
It’s clear that our board needs to have more members who can write personal checks. We abound in ideas, we think we know that corporations and major academic and other institutions would support the work but those connections require time to cultivate and, given the changing times, personnel and priorities of corporate sponsorship change rapidly. These maybe dollars will come when they come but we need dollars right now.
I worked for one organization once where the divide between the haves on some of the staff and board and the have-nots on the staff and clients was acute. The organization had a fundraising dinner at a board member’s home. A few staff and a client were brought in to do a “dog and pony” presentation about the important work of the organization. Then we were whisked away (by a hired limo) before dinner was served.
The donors wanted to support our work but they didn’t want to interact with us more than they had at the brief reception. While on one level I could understand it, on another level it was deeply offending and felt icky. (Especially since the Executive Director, the development professional and another staff member – all people of personal wealth who were compadres of the dinner hosts and guests – got to stay.) At the next staff meeting, it was announced that the dinner had been a resounding success because a significant amount of money had been raised.
Final Take (for now at least)
I’ve decided not to join any more boards and will probably begin to back out of the boards I now belong to except the one that touches my heart so and the one where I’m charged with helping give-away money. For the other boards, I will make whatever contribution I am able to make when I am able to without having the expectation to give hanging over my head and worrying me. (It doesn’t feel good not to have financial juice.) I give to at least a dozen organizations every year – checks ranging from $25 to $150. It’s been suggested that maybe I should reduce the number of organizations to which I contribute and only give one or two more generous donations. That just doesn’t feel right to me when there are so many organizations whose work I cherish. Sending in a donation, however small, is a way of validating their work and supporting them to my way of thinking. (But, I’m not a wise money person as I’ve blogged about before and so most of my decisions around money are most likely not the right ones.)
At one of the former advisory groups I belonged to, one of the activists said she never gives to big organizations like the MFA or Symphony or public television because they have enough deep pocketed donors and don’t need her dollars, which she feels would be better served giving to small, neighborhood-based organizations. I had never thought of my giving in that light. Her analysis has made me go, “hmmm.” It’s one way to approach giving.
What I do know is that “it’s all about money” on most boards these days. Even when the discussion or idea starts with programs, ideas, vision or service, it almost always turns back to a discussion about money. Grandmaster Flash was accurate when he rapped, “It’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny, you got to have a con in this land of milk and honey.*” Amen to that – only I’ll just substitute the word cash for con. You need to have some cash or you really shouldn’t participate.
*Song: The Message, The Sugar Hill Gang.