Many years ago, I lived briefly in a cooperative apartment building, which looks like a condominium building but is fundamentally different. In a cooperative, owners don’t own their units; they just have long-term leases. What they own instead is stock in the landlord—a corporation whose sole asset is the building.

Co-op boards act as landlords: They determine who may move into the building, what sort of alterations may be made to the units, and even how much heat any individual owner receives. As a result, co-op owners monitor board actions closely, because board actions may significantly affect their lives. At the same time, they’re favorably disposed to any regulation that promises to maintain or enhance the value of their units. They’re prepared to accept considerable restrictions on their own freedom of action for the privilege of restraining others’ freedom of action. The system is like living in the United Nations—for better and worse.

This came to mind because during the past week I facilitated two board meetings where people have threatened to quit. (This may suggest I should alter my style of facilitation, but I prefer to think I’m just making people face the hard questions.) At the first meeting, a board member faced with the expectation that he make a personal financial contribution, announced, “If I don’t get credit for using my corporate connections, I quit!” At the second, the executive director responded to a consensus that individual counseling was outside the agency’s mission by saying, “If you’re telling me I can’t listen to people’s problems and try to solve them, I quit!”

If people threaten to quit while talking about difficult issues like money and mission, what does that mean? It’s obviously necessary to press on the most sensitive spot, the issue that needs to be resolved before anything else can be accomplished, but is “I quit!” (whether the person acts upon it or not) the only possible response?

People who serve on nonprofit boards do so out of a passion for the agency’s cause, and what they get in return for their commitment of time, energy, money, and belief is a sense that they own the agency. When an “owner’s” understanding of the agency is challenged or contradicted, naturally it feels as if his/her property is being stolen. “I quit!” means “I’ll throw this in the trash before I let you take it from me.”

It’s good that board members consider themselves owners of the agency, but bad that so many of them misunderstand the nature of that ownership. They don’t own their understanding of the agency’s mission or its means of achieving it. Rather, they co-own the agency with the rest of the board, and it’s the whole board that owns the understanding of mission and means.

This often makes board membership difficult for people who are natural leaders. They’re accustomed to acting without consultation, or with the kind of consultation that acknowledges their superior knowledge and/or power. But on a nonprofit board, those who act without consulting others risk either distorting the mission to match their personal vision or provoking restrictions on everyone’s freedom to prevent that distortion. Neither is a good outcome.

The ideal circumstance is for all the owners to realize that they’re members of a cooperative group whose sole asset is the institution and that securing that asset’s well-being is the task they all face together. When that’s clear, disputes about what the institution is or does or deserves from its board members can be negotiated among all the owners, and no one says “I quit!”

Now, how to get there?

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