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  • Otto Reinisch

Does Your Nonprofit Board Act More Like Owners...or, Stewards?

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Who ‘owns’ your nonprofit organization? [Hint: It’s not the board]

Kathryn Tyler Scott’s wonderful quote guides us toward a correct answer: “The job of every nonprofit board is to preserve the organization for a time they will never see and for people they will never meet.”

Effective nonprofit boards are stewards, not owners, of the organization. For a designated period of time, their work is to oversee every aspect of the organization, maintaining the relevance of its mission and ensuring its success today and for years to come. As they carry out their ‘duty of loyalty’ as stewards, trustees put all self-interest aside to act in the best interest of stakeholders; those who have a vested, often deeply personal stake in the organization’s success. This includes the clients, staff, donors, and communities whose hopes and dreams are embodied in the organization’s mission.

Another often-overlooked – and arguably most important – stakeholder is the general public. It is (the trustees’) task to act as stewards, accountable to the state government that granted the organization’s charter, accountable to the federal government that granted tax-exempt status, and ultimately accountable to the public itself.” [Managing a Nonprofit Organization in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Wolf]

Does your board act more like stewards…or owners? Here’s a simple way to find out:

Ask your board to answer these questions after reviewing the strategic plan:

Q: Which stakeholder ‘voices’ are represented in the plan?

Q: Which stakeholder ‘voices’ are not represented? Why?

Q: How will each stakeholder measure our success in six months? A year? Five years?

Your board only will be able to answer these questions when they cultivate authentic relationships with stakeholders in person, over time, and around shared values. This is the relational work of leadership that allows every voice to be heard through powerful stories shared by stakeholders that reveal their hopes, dreams, and fears.

Truly great nonprofit boards make the most of their service by acting as faithful stewards of what is entrusted to them. By serving wisely, prudently, and boldly, they succeed in fulfilling their highest charge: preserving their stakeholders’ most precious commodity…hope…for today, tomorrow, and for “a time they will never see and for people they will never meet.

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