Freedom of Speech Should Rule on Non-Profit Boards

There is perhaps no greater right granted under our Constitution than freedom of speech. As we go about our daily lives, we hear and read ridiculous things - totally incorrect things - and, with very few exceptions, it is pretty much legal for anyone to say anything about everything.

So, why is there such silence around the non-profit board tables across the country?

I recently wrote an article about an ill-conceived project by one non-profit that has effectively stymied an entire group of non-profits in that community. My theory was that there were plenty of "right minded" board members, but that they took a back seat to the "strong minded" ones. The "right minded" people chose not to speak up.

I remember taking a leadership test many years ago. It was based on a survival exercise where a team of people were stranded in the desert and had to select among certain items (matches, tarp, blanket, etc.) to survive. And, according to expert survivalists, there was a correct combination of items. In other words, it was possible for the team to select the wrong combination of items and likely not survive in the desert. The larger group was divided into teams of five people. The point of the exercise was for the team to work together, using its collective wisdom, and collaborate on the correct survival items to choose. After the exercise was completed and the correct answers announced, there was plenty of arguing with the survivalist (freedom of speech!) about which excluded items should have also been included in his official list. However, it turned out that the specific items selected were not the point of the exercise. Instead, the manner in which the team worked together to come to consensus on the selected survival items was the key point. It was all about leadership attributes: style, intelligence, persuasiveness, and, well, the willingness to just speak up!

What I remember most about the exercise was that the right combination of these attributes constituted the best leader; the wrong combination had dire consequences. For example, just about every team emerged with a "leader" - at least that person was the spokesperson for the team when it was time to announce the survival items that it selected to the larger group. The key point was this: the worst leader had very strong persuasive skills and very weak knowledge; in other words, the worst leader could prevail upon the team to make the wrong decision. The best leader was the one who could collaborate with the entire team and reason through the options to guide the team toward the best decision.

The revelation of this exercise has stuck with me for 25 years. It is a perfect example of what takes place every day in many different situations, including - the point of this article - the non-profit board meeting.

Let's look at some of the key issues involved as a board member sits around the board table:

The board member must show up (you cannot participate if you are not there). Sounds pretty elementary, but how do you exercise your first amendment rights when you are not even in the discussion?

It is critical that the board member have knowledge of the issue being discussed. However, it is not necessary that the board member be an expert; it is only necessary for there to be some basic level of knowledge and ability to think - and speak up! So, reviewing the basics of the issue before the meeting is critical.

There is an old adage that says the person who speaks often gets little notice and the person who speaks last often carries the issue. So, at the board table - especially if the board member is not an expert in the issue under consideration - it is critical to listen more than talk. But, again, the board member must exercise freedom of speech at some point in the meeting.

Importantly, it does not matter if the comments of the board member are seemingly ridiculous. After all, the point is exercising freedom of speech - sharing ideas no matter how right or wrong - which, hopefully, will keep a board from heading off in the wrong direction because there was not enough discussion and debate before a decision was made.

As I write this article, we are in the throes of the primaries and caucuses that will lead to the selection of a Republican candidate for president. Perhaps in no other arena is freedom of speech so wildly exhibited. People seem to be able to say whatever they want about anything, everything, and everybody. Right or wrong never seems to get in the way of freedom of speech. Then there is the media: one day you hear one thing, the next day something entirely different. (One of my pet peeves is that we often do not hear anything from the media on issues of great importance...) Maybe - just maybe - the point is that it's not so much what is said (right or wrong) but whether speech can stimulate thought, then analysis, and ultimately reasoned decision.

A good while ago, I wrote an article on whether executive directors should be board members. Apparently, that is an issue of great concern in the Non-Profit Sector. I still don't much like the idea and the primary reason is that I believe a fundamental duty of a non-profit board is to set policy (not implement plans - that's the appropriate job of the executive director) and my experience indicates that boards that include the executive director as a member ultimately become boards that are led almost entirely by the executive director, thereby losing the criticality of the input of the board itself. I would doubt there is anybody who has ever served on a non-profit board that has not witnessed inappropriate guidance exerted by an executive director on his or her board members (whether openly or behind the scenes).

The point of this article is that the style and strategy of non-profit boards must encourage freedom of speech by all board members. Generally, the leadership required to make sure every board member is heard will come from the board chair. But, even in cases where the board chair is weak - or too strong - every board member has the right and obligation to speak up. I am very much of the opinion that intelligent board members regularly allow poor decisions to be made by not exercising their right to offer their thoughts on the issue at hand.

So, as we get deeper and deeper into the political season where freedom of speech is a cornerstone issue and we will be reminded of it ad nauseam, I suggest that now is a great time for all non-profit board members - and executive directors - to remember that the most powerful asset they bring to the board table is their voice. Use it. The Non-Profit Sector really needs to hear what you have to say.

After all, the last thing you want to have happen is to be stuck in the desert without any way of making fire because you allowed a strong and persuasive, yet wrong, leader to have taken you into that situation.