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Opinion: Dare to imagine a different kind of board

April 29, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose


This guest column was written by Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a cofounder of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative.
I think we have to radically change how boards are structured.

The problems with the nonprofit industrial complex have been outlined in Incite’s book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. In the introduction, Andrea Smith describes that nonprofits are “in a precarious state” and that “despite the legacy of grassroots, mass-movement building we have inherited from the 1960s and 70s, contemporary activists often experience difficulty developing, or even imagining, structures for organizing outside this model.”

Many organizations that rely on foundation or federal dollars are often apolitical and more concerned with pleasing donors than responding to community needs. This, on top of their inaction when workplace violence emerges, often makes them complicit and ineffective. Boards often hide their complicity and failure by ousting or asking the CEO or director to resign.

This happened in the case of Mazzoni Center and the ouster of then-CEO Nurit Shein. Years later, after a national search left the organization with the choice of Lydia Gonzalez, I and others challenged the board of directors on their organizational malfeasance. Ultimately, Lydia quit and then Mazzoni moved three executive staff persons to leadership, on an interim basis. This leadership body is down to two people and Mazzoni Center, though the staff unionized, is left with an inadequate organization at the top.

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I also know too well how board failure can uphold workplace violence because it happened at Mazzoni Center when I worked there.

After years of mounting sexual assault allegations, the leadership and board clamped down instead of addressing the demands of both staff and community. At any point during the direct actions and walkouts, the board could’ve made the right decision to dismiss the CEO [Shein], but the body doubled down in support of her and recklessly failed the vulnerable frontline staff — ultimately the stewards of the most important and community-facing work of the organization.

Boards hold the power to directly manage the leadership of 501(c)3 organizations and should be better watched for their fidelity to their respective mission and bylaws. Otherwise, they run amok, leaving room for them to violate the policies they are meant to uphold.

Louie Ortiz-Fonseca, who I worked with at Mazzoni, had this to say about the board of directors: “they’ve always been this mysterious entity… we knew they had power over us and power over the agency, but that was it.”

He continues by saying that boards often act as overseers, bringing up the imbalanced decision-making powers boards have when operational staff, not management, fulfills the mission of the organization; are usually reflective of the demographic communities the agency works with; and do the most laborious work. Louie has over 25 years of nonprofit experience and is the founder of Gran Varones, an Afro-Latinx queer storytelling project.

In a majority Black and brown city such as Philadelphia, there is still an uneasy disparity, a survey conducted in 2012 stated that while the majority of the respondents were Black executive directors of human services-focused nonprofits, they often lacked access to resources, compared to their white counterparts.

I honestly believe in a worker-owned structure that incorporates a board who must be part of the organization’s workers and have to run for the board position — appointed boards don’t have allegiance to the worker, they often back leaders without much oversight. I think this would upend the power structures of organizations and make the chief executive more accountable. Otherwise, we will relive the cycles of boards rubber stamping reckless CEOs and EDs.

I also believe that organizations that aren’t federally qualified health centers should adopt a similar mandate of having a percentage of board representation be their patients. This is especially important for organizations that provide services to the chronically ill and people who have a disability. I often have been in board spaces where the variance between the board member and person served means there is no understanding that can rightly be attained, given the lack of lived experience on the board.

These could be useful things to consider, as we imagine and structure a world that doesn’t need nonprofits.

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