An 'Attitude of Service' for non-profit and governmental boards

By Michael Mullins | Mar 01, 2018

Non-profit and governmental boards share a responsibility to be good stewards of their resources. In the case of private boards, these governing bodies serve a particular set of stakeholders as defined by the organization’s mission. In the case of governmental boards, these bodies serve at least two groups 1) the direct stakeholders as outlined by the particular board (e.g. the wastewater board makes decisions affecting all parties served by the wastewater infrastructure). 2) Additionally, governmental boards by definition also serve the body politic i.e. voters and taxpayers. We might also argue that governmental boards hold as stakeholders any members of the public who may happen to pass through (in the case of the parks committee, for example, all users who pass through or by the parks).

The question is then, how should such boards operate, and what should be their guiding principles? Most private and public boards today are set up with a mixed form of governance. Boards operate either as an incorporated entity, a 501 (c)(3) for example, or by statutory or governmental charter (a school board, for example). These organizations typically conduct business under procedures such as Robert’s Rules of Order, which itself is based on U.S. Congressional procedure, which is a parliamentary system. At the same time, these organizations often have a top-down leadership structure, either a presidential system (president, vice president, secretary, etc.) or a chairmanship. A chair is a parliamentary position granted powers to run a meeting. Many organizations empower a chairman to also preside over a body, with some degree of authority. Some organizations grant the chair power to act in an executive function, similar to a president.

The title of president itself refers to the head under a republican system. The United States for example, was the first nation to appoint a president, followed by Haiti and later by many other countries. In contrast, in a traditional parliament there is a prime minister. In either case, there is good reason to grant a presiding officer executive authority. For the United States, there was a desire at the founding of the nation to have a decisive leader who could wield executive powers for the sake of national defense, which is why the president is also the commander in chief. Similarly, corporations have adopted president positions that not only preside in terms of convening and organizing meetings, but also head up the operations of the corporation. Indeed, corporations traditionally follow a top-down system inspired by military and governmental structure, with rank-and-file tiers of authority, with each tier having a degree of authority over the next tier down the ladder. Hierarchical organizations such as these are designed for efficacy – to make sure that directives issued at the top find their way to the bottom.

Yet today, non-profit and governmental boards serve a broader set of stakeholders, and are more directly accountable to them. The National Council of Non-Profits ( holds that good governance means, among other things, being transparent, responsive, participatory, and inclusive. And the friction in many organizations is that the top-down hierarchical structure is sometimes incompatible with today’s more progressive concepts surrounding inclusivity.

The top-down approach operates on two implicit principles. First, that qualified individuals will be elected or otherwise ratified in positions of leadership, and second that once installed, these individuals will be trusted to fulfill the duties to which they have been assigned. When all goes well, this model runs smoothly. However when problems arise, the inherent conflict in this system becomes immediately apparent. The effectiveness of board leadership relies upon trust, and trust is based on confidence. Any crisis of confidence will weaken that trust.

We all too often see these crises of confidence, and they unfortunately tend to play out the same way. When their actions are questioned, board leaders are apt to say, “You should trust your committees.” or “Board members should trust each other.” or “You should trust your elected officials to do the right thing." They invoke trust in this way to try to use moral persuasion to restore implicit leadership, even in the absence of confidence. This approach seldom solves the problem of lost confidence. Instead, individuals who challenge actions taken by these leaders, unhappy with a potential outcome, often turn to procedural challenges, since authority, once granted, is difficult to take away. For example, there are internal procedural challenges such as motions to reconsider, or new competing motions. I for one have been to a number of board meetings where, within a board ordinarily lax on procedure, members of a faction are suddenly flipping through a copy of Robert’s Rules and making points of information, points of order, or some other procedure-slowing tactic in resistance to a motion. There are also external procedural challenges, such as reporting to watchdog groups such as ethics commissions, or lobbying other political bodies or even governmental officials seen to have sway over an outcome. Sometimes donors or voters are mobilized to challenge an undesired decision.

This is an unfortunate outcome. And it is seldom what any party wanted to transpire. Almost all non-profit and governmental boards seek to make decisions by consensus, and also seek the support of stakeholders, yet almost inevitably boards eventually find themselves in a situation where they take some executive action on behalf of an organization that offends the interests of a stakeholder group. These situations rarely leave either the board or the offended group satisfied. They usually end in frustration for both parties, and energy that could be used to further the goals of the organization is instead drained away by an unproductive power struggle.

I believe there is a way to avoid this inherent conflict altogether, simply through a change in culture and mindset. I called it an "Attitude of Service." As opposed to a flat, non-hierarchical structure (a topic for another article), a service-minded organization flips the hierarchy on its head. I believe this system cures most, if not all, ills of the top-down leadership model, and is fundamentally better aligned with today’s ideals mentioned above about inclusivity, which is pretty much expected in this day and age following the progressive era and the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Today the people have a strong say, regardless of what the official rulebook says.

The idea, simply put, is as follows: Boards and their leaders are in service to one another, and to their stakeholders, and conduct themselves as such at all times. The organization serves its membership and all stakeholders. The board itself is in service to the organization, and the board president or chair is in service to the other board members. As such, the president, rather than having the highest authority, is instead in the greatest position of servitude. He or she is responsible for serving the needs of the whole board. Indeed, in today’s volunteer boards, presidents are already very much in this position because one of their jobs is to motivate board members to stay engaged and help fulfill the needs of the organization.

So, what does it mean to have an attitude of service? Well, I think it means that you put the other party’s concerns first and give those concerns the benefit of the doubt. Let’s look at an example. If a committee is tasked to issue a report recommending a resolution, and then request that the board ratify it, a committee chair adopting an attitude of service would view any question posed by a board member not as an unwanted challenge, but instead as an opportunity to help that member understand and support the findings of the report. The committee chair knows more about the report than the at-large member, and so might ask, “How can I help you get comfortable with this decision?” or “What other information would he helpful to you to support the resolution?”

Similarly, a board with an attitude of service towards its constituents, understanding its informational advantage, would approach questions from stakeholders in the same manner, “What other information would help you become comfortable with the direction this organization is taking?” or “What specific actions would make you in favor of this initiative?”

The attitude of service is a powerful one, and changes the tone from the very top of the organization. However it is difficult to maintain without another mindset on the part of the questioners, which is an "Attitude of Appreciation," and the two go hand in hand. Having an attitude of appreciation means recognizing the time and effort put in by the leaders of an initiative. This is not the same as trust, and shouldn’t be mistaken for it. Nor should leaders demand trust, for it is the duty of the conscientious board member, and of the civic-minded citizen, to ask probing questions. What’s different then is how the question is asked. Instead of demanding answers from board leadership, a board member with an attitude of appreciation would say, “Thank you for the time you’ve invested in this effort. However I don’t understand the need for [resource x]. You know more about the details, can you help me understand?”

When a board and its constituents simultaneously adopt both an attitude of service and an attitude of appreciation it yields powerful, transformational results. The only caveat is that they cannot expect either one without the other. It doesn’t take much to start the process; just a good faith effort from both sides of an issue to give it a shot.

Michael Mullins is Executive Director for Citizens for Maine.






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