Monday, June 1, 2015
Garry Jenkins has an interesting piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review regarding the growing presence of capitalist minded people, particularly those from the Wall Street Finance sector, on Nonprofit Boards. I have, in the past, argued that the Service should allow exempt organizations greater flexibility to use profit-seeking approaches in the pursuit of the charitable goal. The danger has been that the more an exempt organization looks and acts like a for-profit, the more vulnerable it is to the argument that it ought to lose its tax exemption, perhaps under the commerciality doctrine. But lately, I have had to rethink my belief that for profit and non-profit motives can actually live as happy neighbors in the same charitable neighborhood. That rethinking was prompted mostly by the absolute mess at the Charleston School of Law, (I want to use that for context in a later post about the interplay between for profit and nonprofit motives in a social enterprise) where apparent profit-seeking influences have all but destroyed what originated from altruistic motives. Jenkins explores the longstanding pressures on nonprofits to "get that money" by adoption of for-profit processes. Here are the first few interesting paragraphs:
Over the past twenty-five years the composition of the boards at some of America’s most important nonprofit organizations has dramatically changed. Without much notice, a legion of Wall Street executives (investment bankers, hedge fund managers, and others) has taken a growing number of seats in nonprofit boardrooms. Not only that, they hold a disproportionate share of the leadership positions on these boards.
One of the obvious reasons for this shift is undoubtedly the pressure that nonprofit organizations are under to raise more private funds. After all, given the significant growth in personal wealth generated by those working in high finance, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find more of them on nonprofit boards. A more subtle reason for the growth of financiers on nonprofit boards is likely the growing popularity of using business approaches (and talent) to run nonprofit organizations.
Since 2008, when Matthew Bishop and Michael Green popularized the term “philanthrocapitalism” to describe a new trend of donors seeking to conflate business aims with charitable endeavors, the nonprofit sector has engaged in active interrogation and discussion about the trend and its effect on public charities. Scholars and practitioners have documented various pressures placed on nonprofit organizations by donors and private foundations to adopt business approaches.
Although some of the pressure to adopt business approaches has come from external forces, it may also be true that the concepts and norms of philanthrocapitalism are also now carried into nonprofit organizations by the directors of public charities themselves. Perhaps a new fault line to consider is the very makeup of the governing boards of nonprofit institutions.
To understand the ways in which the composition of nonprofit boards has evolved in recent years, my research team and I examined the biographies of governing directors in 1989 and 2014 of three sets of nonprofit organizations: major private research universities, elite small liberal arts colleges, and prominent New York City cultural and health institutions. The most striking finding was the sizable presence and growth on charitable boards of those whose primary professional background and skill set were drawn from the financial services industry. The tally indicates that the percentage of people from finance on the boards virtually doubled at all three types of nonprofits between 1989 and 2014.
More striking, the data reveal that finance professionals hold an even greater percentage of nonprofit board leadership positions (i.e., board chair, vice chair, or their equivalent). In the case of liberal arts colleges and New York City nonprofits, financiers make up 44 percent of board leadership positions, and in the case of private universities they hold 56 percent of leadership slots.
Of course the social sector, especially the largest and most powerful nonprofit organizations such as those represented by the three types of institutions studied, has long populated its boards with men and women of wealth and professional backgrounds tied to the corporate world. Indeed, it is not unusual for many (although not all) of such members to have the capacity to contribute substantial resources, especially those from business and industry. What’s new is the increased concentration of directors drawn from one narrow sector of business and industry: finance.
This quiet yet dramatic self-transformation of the nonprofit boardroom has come about with little notice and discussion. To understand fully these trends and the impact, the nonprofit sector should ask itself some tough questions: What is sparking these changes in board composition? What values are being represented and promoted? What are the consequences for organizations and the people they serve? How might they affect the quality of board governance? How might the sector respond?
This article begins to shed light on the increasing influence of the finance industry on nonprofit boards. In addition to examining the data, it explores some of the explanations and consequences of these prevailing governance composition choices—and they are choices—that deserve attention and reflection from nonprofit leaders, trustees, and constituents.