The history of the philanthropic sector over the past 50 years has been characterized by “professionalization”—the emergence of dominant institutions, procedures, and practices, that determine how our sector works and how professionals are trained to work in it. One aspect of this has been the development of a technical jargon, powered by a huge technical bibliography, in which the publisher of this book, John Wiley & Sons, has been a respected leader. The Strategic Board’s author, Mark Light, clearly recognizes that the philanthropic profession now constitutes a substantial market for publications.
In general the professionalism of individual charities varies directly with budget size, though the professional culture and infrastructure have by now trickled down to the grassroots— where, however, there are special problems. Ninety percent of all charities have budgets below $2 million, below which only the top handful can afford technical support staff. This “real world” of ordinary philanthropy consists almost entirely of very small organizations, managed by first-time executive directors with less than five years’ experience and governed by trustees who attend only 70 percent of full-board meetings, which am-ount to about 11 hours per year—not a highly professional milieu. It is laudable therefore, that this book, in which almost all these statistics are cited, is dedicated to helping grassroots boards become more effective.
But there is a gap to be bridged. Though professionalization has generally been enormously helpful, one major unhelpful side effect has been a growing separation of relatively technical professional philanthropy from the general public, including volunteers and donors, on whose support philanthropy so heavily depends. An attempt is being made to bridge this gap by the nationwide movement to promote philanthropy as part of an individual’s or family’s everyday life. Unfortunately this book—the subject of which should have inclined it toward bridge-building—is a better example of the gap.
In only its first printing, the book’s subtitle claims it to be “The Step-by-Step Guide to High-Impact Governance.” Designed as a manual, it purports to guide the reader through basic methods of strategic planning, with examples of working documents along the way. It offers itself as a model of governance which apparently it intends to sell: The Strategic Board, “which crafts a Where to go tomorrow-What gets done today” Governance Plan“, is self-described as a practical and common sense tool combining strategic and operational planning, governance, and monitoring into one simple and easy-to-use package that can be passed by the board in a single vote.
There is a certain ingenuousness about the book that might be charming if it werent ridiculous. The Strategic Board model of governance gets the right answers by first asking the right questions.” The “four questions of great governance” are: “Where to go tomorrow?,” “Who does what?,” “What gets done today?,” and “Did it happen?”
Dante focused on threes and nines, but Light prefers fours and sevens. The four great questions ascend from the mire of “the seven realities of nonprofit boards”: most boards have 1) limited time; 2) imperfect knowledge, “hit or miss,” 3) size, and 4) composition; 5) “few consequences, positive or negative, for the performance of the board member and board”; 6) a constant struggle with continuity; and 7) inexperienced executive directors.
To these realities are added his brother Paul Light’s “four major tides” of reform “that nonprofits must react to on a regular basis,” and Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Here, however, Light acknowledges that “making proactivity come alive in an individual is difficult to cultivate.”
In this conceptual wilderness one approaches what ought to be the intellectual core of the book: what is meant by “strategy”? The answer: “Strategies are the lines of business for the organization, the programs and services, the products.” All three? Nay, more: “In the vision, [strategy is] where the rubber meets the road.” And, “Strategies are distinguished from other activities within the organization because like the mission, they are ends, not means.” All this is news to me, but in accepting them for the sake of discussion, I wondered what, exactly, is meant by the “strategic board”?
Take another example: “Imperatives in the Governance Plan are defined as the major obstacles that stand between the organization and its success”—which leads to this depressing example:
After this first round, the organization chose the following as the imperatives:
· No coordinated effort to make neighborhoods better
· Inadequate staffing.
But though linguistic idiosyncrasy makes this book hard to read, there are a few good points. The total neophyte may benefit from illustrations of common group-processing and discussion-facilitating techniques. A broadly useful suggestion is that board committees should be defined according to the main functions of the board, and not those of the organization as a whole. Thus the structure and number of board committees should not parallel those of staff departments—a common practice that ends up wasting valuable time of both board and staff as they address the same subjects from incompatible perspectives, and with wide disparities in knowledge, skills, and other resources.
But in the end, we do not need more books like this: stupefyingly pretentious and dull, poorly argued, and badly written. Now that philanthropy is emerging from its professionalizing cocoon into the light of day, with full exposure to public scrutiny and opinion, we as a profession need to produce an eloquent teaching literature that will provide compelling—informative, persuasive, inspiring—public reading. John Wiley & Sons can be the leader in developing that literature, but not with books like this one.
George E. McCully is a trustee of the Ellis L. Phillipps Foundation and creator of the Catalogue of Giving.