By Arshad Merchant and Amanda Huminski
Kirk Adams, President and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind, recently reminded us of the gravity with which successful leaders and board members must approach their responsibilities to the nonprofits they serve. At the Helen Keller Achievement Awards Gala in June, Kirk began his opening remarks by stating that he viewed his role at AFB as a “sacred trust.” Kirk’s appreciation for the magnitude of his responsibility, reflected not only in his opening statement at the Gala but also by his skillful guidance of AFB since May 2016, spurred a more general reflection on what it means to be a leader or board member at a nonprofit.
The sacred trust Kirk spoke of involves accountability to at least three audiences: beneficiaries, funders, and the general public. The first is perhaps the most obvious. Whether a nonprofit serves individuals who are blind or visually impaired, public school students, or shelter pets, most leaders recognize the responsibility they have to their constituents for stewarding funds and other resources efficiently to ensure the greatest impact and continued pursuit of the organization’s mission and vision.
Leaders must also recognize the responsibility they have to their funders and donors. Whether it’s the federal government writing a check for $10 Million, or a holiday shopper dropping a few dollars into a Salvation Army bucket, funders and donors entrust the leaders and board members of organizations with the task of turning these funds into impact.
Finally, it is crucial for leaders and board members to remember that they are performing a service on behalf of the general public – not just in an abstract way, by “making the world a better place,” but in a very concrete way, by ensuring that nonprofit organizations do not disregard or abuse the legal and financial privileges afforded to them. Nonprofits that are 501(c)3 entities enjoy a number of special privileges afforded by the federal government, ranging from tax exempt purchasing to special postal rates. They enjoy these privileges because nonprofits provide benefits and services that contribute to the common good, and alleviate some corresponding burdens from the federal government. Board members, in particular, are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that nonprofits are holding up their end of the bargain – that they are, in fact, providing a public good and are doing so while efficiently using the financial resources and legal privileges at their disposal.
Responsibility to these audiences constitutes the sacred trust that Kirk was speaking of, and successful leaders and board members recognize the moral and fiduciary responsibility to continually strive towards the organization’s mission. This sense of duty and responsibility, and the privilege of serving the public in this way, can sustain a board or leadership team through times of stress. It can be difficult to manage or guide a nonprofit. It can be difficult to fundraise, to measure impact, to supervise on-the-ground employees, and to make difficult strategic choices. But approaching a nonprofit leadership role as a sacred trust, as Kirk Adams does, can provide the motivation and inspiration to do one’s absolute best, even when things get tough.