The boards of directors of Jewish communal organizations are a disaster. No, they’re models of best practices. Or maybe they’re somewhere in between. The truth is that we have no idea.
Of course, some community boards must be better than others. But that’s cold comfort. Our community organizations run everything from nine-figure fundraising campaigns to sidewalk lemonade stands. Many have an immediate and direct impact on the health, safety and well-being of thousands of people. It’s not overstating the situation to say that some communal boards make life and death decisions.
And yet, it’s entirely unclear if our numerous boards of directors properly understand why they exist or what distinguishes a good board from a not-so-good one. I reckon that some directors of Jewish organizations wouldn’t even know what that means.
You may yawn at an op-ed about governance, but the truth is that boards matter – they matter deeply. When a board does a great job, the organization thrives. When it does a poor job, the organization founders.
The consequences can be dire and real people can suffer as a result. In our community, poor board performance can cause everything from increased poverty and anti-Semitism, to a decrease in Jewish education and identity.
And yet, many Jewish organizations seem not to take director recruitment, education and performance seriously. Too many boards function casually, without the rigour they need to succeed. Some even lack proper training regimes, in order to prepare directors for the complex tasks and risks they face.
Indeed, some in our community treat board membership like a sinecure. It doesn’t help that many of our more prominent organizational boards are informally controlled by an old boys’ club of wealthy establishment donors, instead of being meritocratic.
This must stop. Being a strong director is a learned skill, not some inherited trait. Boards should never become refuges for fragile egos or mechanisms for indulging mega-donors. When this happens, organizations suffer and otherwise qualified candidates whose cheques lack a zero or two grow disenfranchised.
In other words, being well-connected and able to write a big cheque probably makes you an awesome fundraiser, but it has limited bearing on your ability to be a strong and capable leader.
In fairness, fundraising prowess is an asset for many of our communal boards, but too many of them see it as the only skill they need. Such boards ignore outstanding candidates with relevant experience and expertise, who properly understand and execute their role, and who can be true fiduciaries to the underlying stakeholders.
It’s trendy these days to look to the private sector as a model for charities and the like, and that can be fraught with problems. When it comes to governance, however, our communal non-profits should take a rare lesson from the for-profit world.
For instance, the most valuable company in the world, Apple, has eight people on its board. Compare that to our more prominent Jewish communal organizations, some of which have north of 30 or even 40 directors. More people govern some Jewish charities than sit in the federal cabinet.
As someone who has consulted with, worked under and served on various Jewish organizational boards, I can attest that we have some amazingly effective directors and boards, and we have some that don’t understand why they’re there.
So let’s start looking more seriously at ensuring that our community organizations have educated, capable and dedicated leaders serving on their boards of directors. Let’s invest in robust, meaningful governance training, instead of treating it like an afterthought. And let’s consider a national initiative to drive Jewish governance towards best practices.
A small investment in governance would drive huge returns, and there is too much at stake for us to take it for granted. It’s time for our community to govern ourselves accordingly.