Friday, January 15, 2016

Board Member's Oath of Office

I have written some here about nonprofit governance and the critical role of  board members. A book I  just finished reading has several illuminating case studies that describe what happens when governance goes awry. Its title is:"They Told Me Not To Take That Job" (Perseus Books, 2015) and the author is  Reynold Levy. The job was that of president of New York's Lincoln Center, a position Levy held from 2002 until 2014.

Mr. Levy has  directed a number of high level nonprofits over the course of his career- including the  92nd St Y, AT&T Foundation and the International Rescue Committee. Last October he became president of the large Robin Hood Foundation, the mission of which is to fight poverty.

His memoir pulls no punches, especially regarding the leadership of three constituents of Lincoln Center during his tenure: the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan  Opera and the New York City Opera. The actions of the CEO and board of City Opera, which was forced into bankruptcy  (see my blog"Shutdowns" October 4, 2013), comes under withering scrutiny.  Mission creep, a treacherous invasion of its endowment and a variety of managerial missteps led to the demise of this treasured and ground-breaking opera company, whose "alumni" included the likes of Beverly Sills. Mr. Levy clearly lays the blame for this debacle at the feet of the Opera's board.

Mr. Levy then imagines what might have happened if each Opera board member had been required to take the following oath. I present it in its entirety, as it summarizes succinctly what has been written more opaquely elsewhere in the form of board job descriptions and the like. For references to the Opera insert your organization's name, audience and purpose:

" As a trustee, I pledge to participate actively in the governance of the _______(New York City Opera). As such I will take care to look closely after the selection of a Chief Executive Officer, to regularly monitor the CEOs' performance in office, and to carefully review both the organization's financial affairs and the discharge of its (artistic) mission.

I recognize that the _____(Opera) requires financially supportive trustees, and I will offer generous contributions, consistent with my means. I shall also encourage friends, colleagues, and associates to donate funds.

In executing my responsibilities, I will first and foremost consider the best interests of the institution in its service to _________(audiences  and  artists).  I will not hesitate to voice my view if either my fellow trustees or senior management  appear to be straying from the path of fiscal and programmatic solvency in pursuit of the ________(New York City Opera's) clearly stated mission."

Mr, Levy then asks: " Would an oath of this kind help to set a peer-driven expectation of responsible governance?"   I would say "yes."  If each board member subscribes to it, then that lays the groundwork for the institution's governance becoming "peer-driven," e.g. evolving from the collective actions of the members of the board in their oversight role. One cannot overemphasize enough the board duty of OVERSIGHT.

A few days before I wrote this post,  a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Manhattan approved a reorganization plan for the revival of the New York City Opera, in a different and far smaller form, and not at Lincoln Center. One hopes members of  the board that will oversee the new organization would, if not take the above oath exactly, pledge themselves to its spirit.

I commend Mr. Levy's book to you. Like other memoirs of successful executives, it is not without elements of self-congratulation. But the stories he tells shines a bright light on critical issues faced by all nonprofits.The book ends with a helpful and practical section entitled "Leadership Lessons That Matter Most."  One lesson he describes is " The Persuasive Power of the Written Word" where he writes: "its persuasive power, its capacity to convey meaning, and its ability to move readers to favorable action is impressive."  Amen to that!

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