NAACP board needs to start anew

NONPROFITS INC.

September 05, 1994|By LESTER A. PICKER

Like so many Americans, I've followed this summer's travails of the NAACP with a sense of embarrassment and despair. Many a morning I forced myself from my newspapers and coffee to turn, heavy-hearted, to my computer.

The internal battles raged within the NAACP board and within me.

I had to emotionally divorce myself from my days involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, from my marching on Washington and from Dr. King's historic speech.

My frustration, I realized, had everything to do with my present role as a counsel to nonprofit boards of directors.

Each day I read Carl T. Rowan's passionate appeals to end the organization's trauma and fire Dr. Chavis. But it wasn't until Rowan's column of Aug. 23, several days after Chavis's firing, that the full impact -- and wisdom -- of his position shone through.

Rowan insisted that the NAACP board also dismiss Dr. William Gibson, its chairman. I agree. Rowan went one step further, suggesting that the entire board resign and a new, more manageable board be elected. Again, I couldn't agree more.

In fact, the entire NAACP debacle is a classic case of nonprofit board mismanagement, very much similar to the shambles that United Way of America found itself in three years ago.

At that time, I also called for the United Way board to resign.

In all the public exposure of the NAACP's dirty laundry, one critical fact wasn't adequately brought home. Dr. Chavis was only the staff representative of the NAACP. The board of directors was, and is, its sole legitimacy. All organizational power and direction must flow from the board. And I'm talking here about the board as a whole, not some subset, committee or inner clique.

As an outsider, the NAACP board appears to me to have an inherent structural problem from the get-go. There are simply too many members to govern effectively.

Throughout the years, I've known only one board the size of the NAACP's that was able to govern effectively. Forget the politics that may have led to a board of more than 50 members.

The plain fact is that the end result of an unwieldy board is frequently lack of involvement, cliques, lack of leadership and a lack of strong policies and controls that would prevent other Chavis-type scenarios.

Rowan's column made an impassioned plea for a new board to be named, consisting of no more than 30 members. That's a solid, workable number in my experience. It's no accident that many strong local and national boards have evolved to that number of members, give or take a few.

With a board of 30 well-chosen individuals, assignments can be broken down by committee. Annual goals and objectives are more easily developed and can be monitored for accountability.

The fact that present NAACP board members claimed to have no knowledge of Dr. Chavis' employment contract is not only inexcusable, it is a red flag of deep-seated problems.

A board that was kept in the dark about this issue, recruitment figures and other critical matters is a board that should feel compelled to resign and reconstitute itself for the benefit of the organization.

Good boards have manageable numbers. They are diverse in every way that matters in a pluralistic society.

They are diverse in the skills that board members bring to bear for the benefit of the organization. They are well-disciplined in the ways of conducting their business: both at meetings and working at tasks between meetings.

While this modus operandi is applicable to any local nonprofit, it is doubly so for one constantly operating in the harsh national spotlight.

Many boards I am aware of now spend time and energy in exploring ethical issues, policy concerns and board management issues that create strong leadership -- and equally strong followship -- for their organizations.

Carl Rowan's comments are right on track. The NAACP board needs to reconstitute itself.

Then it must embark on a serious introspective journey that will result in a philosophy and direction that will build consensus for its diverse constituents.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202; (410) 783-5100

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