Opinion

Cultures of Nonprofit Trusteeship: What Lies Beneath?

Jeffrey Simonoff

By Jeffrey S. Simonoff and Rikki Abzug

Nonprofits tend to think about boards in a way that assumes that they are nonporous entities—a kind of standardized form with few variations. But the opposite is true: nonprofit boards of directors are deeply influenced by any number of “silent” factors beyond whether they happen to adhere to commonly agreed-upon standards of governance.

By Jeffrey S. Simonoff and Rikki Abzug

Nonprofits tend to think about boards in a way that assumes that they are nonporous entities—a kind of standardized form with few variations. But the opposite is true: nonprofit boards of directors are deeply influenced by any number of “silent” factors beyond whether they happen to adhere to commonly agreed-upon standards of governance. Our research indicates that they are influenced by their geographic regions, the fields in which they practice, the social era (and theories of change) from which that field emerged, and the regulatory and funder-driven standards of that field, to name a few. This makes these entities far more of a cultural puzzle than previously thought. But these differentials are often plowed under when board development is approached by nonprofits, driving them further underground as silent informers of behavior. The purpose of this article is to begin to unearth these, so that nonprofit practitioners can begin to question their own working assumptions about boards and why their board is the way it is and acts the way it does.

These conversations become especially important in the context of the persistent lack of racial inclusiveness on nonprofit boards and the frequency of splits between nonprofits’ boards and their constituents. Unexplored structures and their underlying narratives may need to be excavated and re-chosen for their value or rejected for their lack thereof before real changes vis-à-vis boards can be realized.

Lately, there has been a great deal of conversation about how democracy is imperiled by some of the ways in which philanthropy and nonprofits interact with the public, but the concerns raised about creeping plutocracy via philanthropy, and what some call thenonprofit industrial complex, are not at all new. But they, along with other critical questions, have been plowed under.

Read the full Nonprofit Quarterly article.

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Jerry S. Simonoff is a Professor of Statistics.