Q: I am on the board of a nonprofit organization that is very close to my heart. Over the years I have joined a number of other organizations with the intention of benefitting it. Besides making contacts to whom I can introduce it, I’m after the substantial check one of these other organizations gives out to a deserving charity each quarter. I now have the opportunity to join a nonprofit chamber of commerce. Since the chamber is all about networking, I think it could be especially valuable when it comes to promoting my charity.
My question is this… All these memberships are very expensive. Between the costs to join, events I must attend in support of these other organizations, and my significant ongoing donations to my favorite charity, I have taken on a major financial commitment. I would like to know if I could ask this charity to pay for my chamber membership. Everyone on the board knows the level of my commitment, and knows that my purpose in joining the chamber would strictly be to help our organization.
I realize this could open a can of worms. If all our board members were to start joining other boards and networking groups, and I’ve set a precedent, this could become costly for our organization. Still, I would appreciate hearing your opinion on this matter.
A: You are right… You would be opening a can of worms. But, in this particular instance, you might be able to make a case for having the organization we’ll call “My Heart” pay for the chamber membership. I’ll come back to that shortly. Let’s start with the other organizations and why the responsibility for paying all the costs related to your involvement with those organizations must remain yours – and why your other board directors would remain responsible for the costs related to their other board commitments.
It’s always a nice bonus when you happen to meet people through your participation on other boards who turn out to be interested in, and helpful to, your favorite charity. But, think about how unfair it would be to My Heart if the roles were reversed and someone joined its board for the primary purpose of promoting another organization.
When you join a board, it is assumed that you care about that organization, and will do whatever is necessary to help it achieve its mission and vision. This includes putting that organization’s needs before your own – which is actually a legal obligation called the Duty of Loyalty. That is hard to do when you belong to multiple boards, for the very reason that it’s impossible to serve two or more organizations equally. It’s why you’ll often read that dual loyalty, which refers to splitting your loyalty between two or more boards, is seriously frowned upon.
There is a more critical issue with the organization you joined with the hope of winning one of its large grants. Unless the mission of that group is to support its members’ preferred charities, you may be opening yourself up to a charge of personal inurement. In layman’s terms, if you win, you could be seen as personally benefiting from your association with this granting organization. This is true, even though you are not taking the check home and depositing it in your own bank account. While it’s not likely to happen, if someone does claim personal inurement, and it’s judged so, you and the granting organization could be responsible for paying significant fines.
I would suggest that you don’t want My Heart paying any of the costs associated with your work with other organizations. It would be like announcing to the world that you are not only flouting your Duty of Loyalty, but that you are using these other organizations. That would not sit very well with anyone! And, while you may want to see My Heart benefit from your involvement with these other organizations, my guess is that you actually do care about them, and that you are working toward their success – even if not with the same passion you have for My Heart. Therefore, personally being responsible for supporting their efforts financially is the right thing.
The nonprofit chamber is a different story, because the entire reason chambers exist is to have members promote their organizations. The networking that takes place at chamber meetings has proven over time to be valuable to the majority of its members. I would suggest that if the My Heart board decides that the investment could be worthwhile, it should buy a corporate membership. Now here is where you come in… Membership in any organization is worthless unless one becomes active. Most organizations have a hard time finding someone that is willing to go to the meetings, join committees and do what it takes to see the return on investment. I bet the My Heart board would be happy to have you serve as its chamber representative.