The Problem and Challenge of a “Representative” Board

The board of trustees of a non-profit are designed to provide an accountability for the leadership with this end in view:  they are trustees of the mission and are the accountability body to assure that the mission is happening [in a financially sustainable manner].   By design, they “represent” those stakeholders who have a vested interest in the mission of the organization. 

Thus, for example, denominational seminaries will have denominational officials on the board of trustees.   The university where I serve as president has a majority of the board who are appointed by denominational bodies.  And there is nothing subtle about this:  the intent of these appointments is fairly straightforward – that is, they are there, it is assumed, to “represent” the interests of the body that appointed them to the board. 

Sometimes, this “representation” is more subtle.   A church will press for more diversity:  “we need someone from our ethnic minorities within the congregation”, or “we need more women on the board” or “we need someone from the corporate world” and so on.  That is, we view the board as representing various stakeholders and then assume that they are then on the board to defend and look out for and maintain that voice, that perspective on the board.  And then the board member thinks of herself through this lens:  “I am here to look out for the interests or concerns of  . . . the denomination that appointed me, or the sector of the demographic that I am supposedly on the board to advocate for.” 

On the one hand, I can understand the logic:   boards represent diverse stakeholders; a denomination will want to assure that their denominational priorities shape seminary policies and practices.   Or, on a board someone who is there by virtue of gender or ethnicity or another subgroup within the demographic that the organization or church seeks to serve will, of course, speak up on behalf of that sub-group.  Of course.   However, we also need to speak to the problem or potential problem:  that the genius of a great board or church council is that it speaks with one voice and collectively is attentive to the diverse constituencies and stakeholders that it is called upon to serve.   Each board member has a “duty of care” – that is, a responsibility for the well-being of the organization of which they are a trustee and not merely or only their own constituency.   They need to be able to see the whole and speak to the well-being of the whole and not merely their particular concern or interest or basis for which they are on the board.   

Boards only work effectively when together they function as one voice, empowering the leadership to do what is best for the organization – so that the mission happens.   At some point along the way, the board may ask for a member of the board to speak on behalf of a sub-group so that those concerns or perspectives have voice at the table and as part of the deliberations.  But that is only “pro tem” – for that brief moment in the board conversation.  Then we continue on the assumption that everyone in the room, everyone at the table, each board member, is part of a collective working towards a common shared conviction about what it means to be this organization and fulfil the mission of this organization through its appointed leadership.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.