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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Are Non-Profit Boards up to the Task of Governing?

With the latest Board failure in the county at the Domestic Violence Center folks might be wondering if volunteer boards can manage non-profits effectively. The latest failure comes ironically after the Domestic Violence Center had taken over the operation of the STTAR Center the previous year after financial issues were raised with with that agency. With county tax revenue being the major source of funding to these organizations it does raise the question of how much oversight the county provides to insure that these organizations operate effectively. The county’s role in questioning the operation of both of these organizations (and other local funders) and putting on hold future funding should be praised as being an accountable and responsible guardian of county tax dollars.

As someone who has served on a wide variety of non-profit boards locally, statewide and nationally in many roles, including President and Treasurer, I have seen how is hard it is to get board members to take their organizational and fiscal responsibilities seriously. Somehow many board members were members in name only or felt that the officers would keep the organization operating smoothly. The professionalism of non-profit boards can vary widely and there is no guarantee that large non-profit boards operate more professionally. The difficulties of the national United Way a few years ago proved that.

In this country there has always been a social and political debate on how human services should be provided. Many Western European countries have clearly favored the government as the providers of many of the services that in this county are provided by a network of non-profits and other non-governmental organizations. The rationale for our system of providing services is that non-governmental organizations can involve and engage the community in partnerships and financial support that government agencies would have a difficult time developing. The “cradle to grave” social welfare system of other developed countries seems to have been a tough sell in this country. This was clearly seen in the recent debate of a very limited health care reform.

What is clear is that as county populations grow the demand for services from volunteer organizations can outstrip the ability of those voluntary organizations to provide services. In Howard County we can see this development in our move from a county commissioner model of government to our present form and the local government becoming the provider of a wide range of services. The development of a paid fire department, expanded county police department and the development of a Citizens Services Department as a human service provider are examples of this change. In Howard County the partnership of the county and the non-profit organizations has generally been a successful model in providing our residents with a wide range of human services that is a key component of our county’s quality of life.

I would hope that the recent news stories on the STTAR Center and the Domestic Violence Center would not make us more hesitant to support our local non-profits but to recognize that the strength of our non-profit community depends on the active involvement of wide range individuals. If you value the importance of the services that are provided by our local non-profits I would encourage you to get involved with a local non-profit. The Association of Community Services website is a good place to identify a non-profit with which to become involved.

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