NAACP board turns to Harvard for advice on effective function

Weekend retreat coincides with its 90th anniversary

April 11, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

In a rare chance to sit back and regroup, the national board of the NAACP is meeting for a two-day retreat this weekend at Harvard's Business School to get the advice of some of the nation's top nonprofit experts on how to run the civil rights organization.

The getaway follows a first Harvard retreat last spring focused on organizational crises, a subject near to the NAACP's heart.

It also allows the aging, 64-member board to step back from the specifics of governing the sprawling organization and scrutinize how the members work -- and what they can do better.

"This doesn't have much to do with civil rights, per se, but with how the organization functions," said Julian Bond, chairman of the national board and a history professor at the University of Virginia.

"Last year, we had no budget matters to debate, no resolutions to revise and no proposals to review. I think we came away with a feeling that we haven't been operating at the height of efficiency."

The retreat comes as the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People marks its 90th anniversary amid now-familiar questions of relevance.

Many are struggling to define civil rights activism at a time when African-Americans are more prosperous, accomplished and educated than ever, yet still combat such basic problems as police brutality and racial profiling.

Many look to the organization's board for that direction.

The NAACP board controls such aspects as membership dues, hiring the president and voting on resolutions that become official NAACP actions and statements.

Its board members are volunteers who pay for their own travel and expenses. Most are business professionals and lifelong civil rights activists.

In recent years, they have helped the organization weather upheaval in leadership and waves of scandal. Under Bond, President Kweisi Mfume and former Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams, it has re-emerged as a stable civil rights force.

That renewal caught the attention of folks who run Harvard's Social Enterprise Institute, a branch of its business school that focuses on nonprofits. After board member Nancy L. Lane, who has studied at Harvard, contacted the institute, academics there met with Evers-Williams to study the NAACP.

"This had been something [Evers-Williams] had wanted to do for years -- it was one of several goals she had pulled together for herself as chair," said Lane. "There never had been time to really stop and say, `How are we doing? What can we do better?' "

Each board member was surveyed on the board's strengths and weaknesses: Are there too many committees? Is your civil rights work overlapping with work done by other organizations?

Most issues that arose were "similar to those confronting other nonprofit organizations," said James E. Austin, head of the Social Enterprise Institute.

The NAACP's "relatively large board" and complicated structure -- including hundreds of branch offices with elected officials in each -- make it more difficult to manage than other organizations.

Before dealing with structural issues, the board wanted to learn from its past problems. It spent two days last March analyzing crisis-management in nonprofits.

"We saw how these other groups had dealt with these problems, and it was sort of like a light bulb going off," Bond said. Then, they planned another retreat that would focus on the future.

"What came back was that we really need to look at reinventing ourselves every three to five years," said Tony Fugett, a board member from Baltimore. "We've got to make sure we stay abreast of the issues of the day."

Lane, who is from New Jersey, said: "In our first meeting after that first retreat, we reduced the number of our standing committees. Before, the meetings had gone on at great length, but we were able to move them along."

Though they have made strides, some wonder whether the board may be hampered for reasons beyond its control: Most members are in their 60s and 70s, and there is barely a handful of college-age members.

Said Bond, "One of my hopes is that we can vary this board more to make it more diverse, not just racially but also to bring in people who haven't spent their lives in the NAACP. Where we're lacking is in the late 20s, early 30s.

"If you draw your leadership from too narrow a pool, you don't always see the larger world around you and the bigger picture."

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