On the care and feeding of charities
“Charities are not entirely unlike owning a dog.” With a little editorial help Hull’s thesis statement could have avoided the double negative, but he does bring his point home: “There are stark similarities between the breeding, birth, and ongoing health of a family dog and looking after a registered charity.”
This analogy poignantly illustrates a big problem. We can all agree that responsible dog owners should be well informed of their responsibilities, but the fact is most dog owners don’t read books or take courses until something goes wrong.
The same is apparently true of board members, and I am the perfect example. I have both owned dogs and been on boards for much of my life, and I have very little inclination to read either dog-rearing or board-governance books.
The stakes when raising a dog can be high, but the average lifespan of a dog is 10 years and has a discrete end. This is not the case with charities. Charities live on and take their respective joys and sorrows with them. Obviously, we should take the fundamentals of governing these creatures called charities seriously.
A Guide to Governing Charities is a description of board governance based on Ted Hull’s 25 years’ experience advising and sitting on the boards of various charities.
At the outset, Hull states that he uses the Carver governance model. The Carver governance model begins with the principle that boards are to limit their attention to the vision and mission of a charity (the “ends”) while the management team should focus its attention on the path to that place (the “means”). For those interested in comparisons, some years ago the Canadian MB conference (CCMBC) adopted the Les Stahlke Relationship Model with the guiding metaphor of a fruit-bearing tree in which relationships define the health of the tree.
Anyone who has worked on boards will soon see where the ends/means division, which looks so simple in charts and glossaries, keeps bumping up against how actual board discussions tend take place. In real life, “ends” and “means” are very intertwined. Regardless, I believe the tension the Carver model creates is an important piece of board governance.
Over a large part of the book, Hull makes the point that boards must know the purpose and meaning of things like mission statements, core values, AGMs, stakeholders, members. “You can call it a purple horse or pink lettuce for all I care; just make sure that when those terms are used everyone knows what they mean,” he writes. He therefore suggests that “your charity should have a glossary of cooperate vocabulary” For MBs who define themselves as evangelical Anabaptists, this is a point worth taking to heart.
Some other notable quotes from the CCMBC context follow:
“The Board is not the ‘boss’ of the Charity. Its purpose is to serve the Members by understanding the ongoing interests and concerns of the Members and ensure that those interests and concerns take place at an operational level.” It’s easy for boards to see AGMs as necessary evils rather the primary vehicles for hearing from the members.
“Churches are different from other charities…. Churches are more than a place to serve. People refer to their home Church.” Hull makes an important theological and practical point in this. Churches that issue tax receipts are corporate entities, but that is not the definition of a church. Here too is an inherent tension that needs to be taken seriously.
Following up on the dog ownership metaphor, Ted Hull is not the Cesar Millan of charities governance. This guide reads like a governance textbook.
To a significant extent, the book is further weakened by its self-described purpose of being a sales and teaching manual for Ted Hull Consulting. In this, it fits well into the ubiquitous world of infomercials, but once that purpose became apparent, I had to fight my attitude.
That said, having read it carefully, I took a lot away from A Guide To Governing Charities and suspect that most board members who, like me have not read board governance manuals would as well.
—James Toews has been pastor at Neighbourhood Church in Nanaimo, B.C., for 26 years. Clearly this city and region on the westerly edge of the North American continental shelf have proven to be a very good fit.