Barack Obama, who undoubtedly will be remembered by historians throughout the world for his historic achievement as the 44th and first African American President of the United States, articulated the many challenges one faces in creating change. It’s inherent that people don’t want to change and are resolute in deep-seated positions; however, without change, we can’t have progress. I contend that in order for the Liberian community in America to progress we must spark much needed change.
President Obama cited the often-referenced definition of insanity as, “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.”
Similarly, this is currently the sad state of affairs of most Liberian nonprofit organizations in the United States. With the exception of the church and other religious organizations, Liberian community 501(c)(3) nonprofits in the U.S., including especially the national umbrella organization, the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA) and its member state chapters and the Liberian school alumni associations, have and continued to be bedeviled seemingly by a colony of incurable rashes of internal conflicts. This insidious malady is exacerbated by the systemic emasculation of the board of directors. Structurally, members of these organizations have and continue to put a premium on electing presidents and other executive committee officers at the expense of the board of directors for over half a century.
Sadly, as a result, most, if not all of these organizations, have impoverished and continue to underdeveloped their communities. For example, they have yet to show a piece of real estate – community center – that they can truly call their own. They are caught in this vicious cycle of insanity. They continue to spin their wheels in the delusion or false hopes of gaining some sort of traction that will catapult them on the trajectory of meaningful community development. They have been doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. After more than 50 years of electing presidents and putting a premium on the role and actions of the executive leadership while emasculating the board of directors, the goal of building a community center has become incredibly unattainable for Liberian community nonprofits. This is madness!
We (Liberians) are certainly better than this. Change is crying out! Though change is difficult, let us muster the courage and embrace it. A community center is a flag for a people; it symbolizes their unity and deep commitment to the cause of caring for one another – and the cause of promoting their cultural heritage especially for current and future generations. This is indeed an attainably worthy goal; it should not be a dauntingly bedeviling task, only if people are open to the notion of change with moral imaginations – only if we are willing to take the necessary risks and be vulnerable – for it is in our vulnerability that the eternal spring of hope unfolds and unleashes waves of opportunities and possibilities not just for us and our children but also for posterity.
The central argument of my text is this: if Liberian community nonprofit organizations, especially 501(c)(3) nonprofits, want to minimize the ever-looming rashes of bedeviling internal conflicts – if they want to be catapulted on a trajectory of meaningfully developing their communities and building their own community centers – and if they want to deepen with moral imaginations their commitment to caring for one another and providing real charitable services with the ultimate goal of achieving their organization’s mission of meaningful community development – then two things have got to change. First, the general membership of Liberian community nonprofits must cede power to and elect an effective board of directors – a board that is empowered not only with complete corporate management and control over the executive officers of the organization, but also the board must be empowered to add to its membership honorary directors who have the capacity to expand the reach of the organization.
Second, the board must be restructured and remodeled after the typical nonprofit board in the U.S. which is structurally empowered to either elect or appoint executive officers of the organization. This type of organizational structure is not only the norm, but also it is typically an inherent part of the success stories of the overwhelming majority of the more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations that are operating in the U.S. today, based on published data by the National Center for Charitable Statistics. It’s a successful model that’s worth emulating.
While this text is applicable to almost all Liberian nonprofit organizations, both religious and secular, however, for the essence of time and space, it is scoped within the context of the bedeviling problems within ULAA and its member state chapters. But let me pause here for a brief historical context.
The greater Liberian community within the United States has been around for more than half a century. The chronicle of Liberian American immigration began about a year after the historic 1924 Liberia-Firestone deal. According to World and Cultures, the first recording of Liberian immigration to the U.S. started in the 1920s, with 27 Liberians from 1925 to 1929 based on records of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (now called the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services); 30 Liberians from 1930 to 1939; 38 Liberians from 1940 to 1949 (a period during which Liberia became a founding member in the historic 1945 creation of the United Nations); the number increased to 232 in the 1950s, then to 569 in the 1960s; in the 1970s, the community came more into presence with 2,081 Liberians; the number more than doubled in the 1980s; and it is estimated that there are about 250,000 to 500,000 Liberians currently living in the U. S., according to World and Culture.
As the greater Liberian community came more into presence particularly on the U.S. east coast, local Liberian communities in the various states started forming community groups that morphed into nonprofit organizations, including the Liberian Student Union, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s especially in states like New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. And on 4 July 1974, delegations from many of these community organizations, including the Liberian Student Union, met in the City of Philadelphia, in the Commonwealth State of Pennsylvania, and founded a national umbrella group, called the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (commonly known as ULAA). Its mission was to promote peace and unity amongst Liberians here and in the homeland.
According to Front Page Africa, the pioneering group of founding leaders of ULAA were the late Jangaba A. Johnson (National President), the late Leslie Norman Abayomi Cole, Sr. (National Board Chairman), the late Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, Charles McArthur Taylor, Blamo Nelson, Jackie Goodridge, Edward Deshield, William Kollie, Ken Nuebel Acolatse, and George Dunye. In 1976, Mr. Leslie Cole became president of ULAA after defeating Charles Taylor, whom he subsequently appointed as his director of public affairs. Using the organization as a springboard for their political aspirations, many of these founding ULAA leaders and several of their successors would later become prominent figures in modern Liberian political history after the 1980 bloody coup d’etat that lead not only to the overthrow of the Tolbert government but also took the lives of 13 prominent Liberian leaders. One prime example is the 1989 insurgency of Mr. Charles McArthur Taylor, leader of the rebel group, the National Patriotic Front – morphed into the National Patriotic Party – which led to his successful 1997 election as the 22nd President of Liberia.
One common characteristic of all of these former leaders is their incredible failure in the development of Liberia. The primary reason for this failure is that they were unpracticed at community development during their tenures as leaders of ULAA.
The Two Hundred Fifty Thousand Dollar Question
The fundamental question that has and continues to confound Liberian community leaders is this: After more than 50 years, since the first group of Liberians immigrated to the U.S., why has it been so incredibly difficult for Liberian community 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations – with the exception of the church and other religious organizations – to acquire their own community center? Why is ULAA, the hub of Liberian community organizations, yet to acquire a piece of real estate that it can truly call its own, after almost 50 years of existence since its founding in1974?
Show me a community that is capable of raising $250,000, and I will show a group of people that is deeply wedded to the cause of acquiring their own community center – I will show you a group of people that is developing its community; show me a community center, and will show you a group of people that is deeply committed to cause of helping the poor and vulnerable, with the ultimate goal of achieving a meaningful community development.
Unfortunately, it seems as if we (Liberians) are incapable of getting our act together, not even for the greater good. Something is fundamentally amiss here. It is said that Liberians are a smart and peculiar people, but what is the utility of this peculiarity when we are incapable of building our own community center? If we are truly a unique breed of people, then shouldn’t our peculiarity be inherently capable of exuding something positive that is worthy of emulation? Or are we simply inherently peculiar to mediocrity, when it concerns our community development?
The causality of this bedeviling problem has three deep roots: atypical organization structural dynamic, rashes of internal conflicts, and lack of soul commitment to the community on the part of members. Analysis of these three imputations is presented here, along with a set of proposed solutions and recommendations, in the hopes this text illuminates, in earnest, the bedeviling problem and that leaders of ULAA and its member state chapters muster the courage to strengthen the structural weaknesses of their organizations.
But first, a brief overview of the general characteristics of nonprofit organizations would be expediently instructive in illuminating the composition of each of the root causes, and more importantly in providing a lens for gaining some sort of insight into finding sustainable solutions to these vexing problems.
What is a nonprofit organization? Wikipedia provides the following descriptive definition:
A nonprofit organization (NPO), also known as a non-business entity, not-for-profit organization, or nonprofit institution, is an organization dedicated to furthering a particular social cause or advocating for a shared point of view. In economic terms, it is an organization using its surplus of the revenues to further achieve its ultimate objective, rather than distributing its income to the organization’s shareholders, leaders, or members. Nonprofits are tax- exempt or charitable, meaning they do not pay income tax on the money that they receive for their organization. They can operate in religious, scientific, research, or educational settings. The key aspects of nonprofits are accountability, trustworthiness, honesty, and openness to every person who has invested time, money, and faith into the organization. Nonprofit organizations are accountable to the donors, founders, volunteers, program recipients, and the public community. Public confidence is a factor in the amount of money that a nonprofit organization is able to raise. The more nonprofits focus on their mission, the more public confidence they will have, and as a result, more money for the organization… The activities a nonprofit is partaking in can help build the public’s confidence in nonprofits, as well as how ethical the standards and practices are.
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), there are currently more than 1.5 million active and reporting tax-exempt nonprofit organizations in the U.S. under the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax code Section 501(c) requirements. Nonprofits are tax-exempt simply because they provide charitable services to various societal sectors including especially to the poor and vulnerable. Nonprofits are religious, charitable, or educational-based organizations that do not influence state or federal legislation. Here is a set of additional stats from NCCS: Approximately 1.54 million nonprofits were registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2016, an increase of 4.5 percent from 2006; the nonprofit sector contributed an estimated $1.0472 trillion to the US economy in 2016, composing 5.6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP); of the nonprofit organizations registered with the IRS, 501(c)(3) public charities accounted for just over three-quarters of revenue and expenses for the nonprofit sector as a whole ($2.04 trillion and $1.94 trillion, respectively) and just under two-thirds of the nonprofit sector’s total assets ($3.79 trillion); in 2018, total private giving from individuals, foundations, and businesses totaled $427.71 billion (Giving USA Foundation 2019), a decrease of -1.7 percent from 2017 (after adjusting for inflation). According to Giving USA (2018) total charitable giving rose for consecutive years from 2014 to 2017, making 2017 the largest single year for private charitable giving, even after adjusting for inflation; an estimated 25.1 percent of US adults volunteered in 2017, contributing an estimated 8.8 billion hours, a 1.6 percent increase from 2016; the value of these hours is approximately $195.0 billion.
Nonprofit types: According to Neo Law and Mission Box, there are two types of nonprofit organizations: board- driven and member-driven. In board-driven nonprofits, there are either no members or members with limited rights; and in the absence of members, the board is self-perpetuating, which simply means the board chooses its own members. The directors whose terms are ending elect their successors which may be themselves. The board of directors is the highest authority. One major advantage of this structure is efficiency and simplicity. By contrast, member-driven nonprofits have a democratic governance structure. The general membership or assembly is the ultimate seat of power. Members have statutory or voting rights; they can vote on changes to the board of directors and adding or removing directors from the board. Examples of member-driven charities are chambers of commerce, churches, social clubs, and trade associations, given that their primary goal is to serve their members. One major inherent weakness of member-driven nonprofits is that they are highly susceptible to internal conflicts which are caused mainly by executive officers, including especially presidents or CEOs with a corrupt intent, who have the propensity of manipulating and dividing members for their personal gains. Comparatively, the majority of the more than 1.5 million tax-exempt nonprofit organizations have a board-driven structure.
Member-driven organizational structure and functions: The typical structure of a member-driven nonprofit is hierarchical (top-down power structure), starting with the general membership, board of directors, officers (or executive committee), and other board committees. The general membership is the highest authority. Members have statutory rights; they can vote on changes to the board of directors, including adding or removing directors from the board. The general membership has regular, annual, and special meetings. The board of directors is the second highest authority and the governing body of the organization. In the governance and structural processes, the board sets and implements all policies of the organization, including management and control of the officers, and the formation and make ups of all standing and ad-hoc committees. According to Leading with Intent, the average number of directors is 15 and the medium is 13. Most states require a minimum number of three directors.
Many boards, with the approval of the general membership, have honorary directors who are appointed as non-voting members; they are usually high net-worth or high- profile individuals who have the capacity of expanding the reach of the organization. Most states, including New Jersey, give Board members the power to hold two offices, with the exception of the president serving simultaneously as secretary of the organization. The average tenure of directors is three years. Term limit is optional, based on the decision of the general membership. Directors’ power to simultaneously serve as officers undergirds the very definition of officers – that is, officers are those members of the board who have been given the additional responsibility of running the daily affairs of the organization. The only officer who comes from outside the board is the executive director (usually a paid employee), an ex-officio non voting member. Based on the minimum number of three board members, the core officers of a nonprofit are the president, treasurer, and secretary. Other officers include one or more vice presidents, assistant treasurers, and assistant secretaries. The officers make up the executive committee, one of the board’s important standing committees. Because officers are structurally birthed by the board, they usually serve at the will and pleasure of the board.
Forming a nonprofit: In order to establish a nonprofit, states generally require founders and/or register agents to submit Articles of Incorporation and/or bylaws of the corporation. At the federal level, for approval of 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, the IRS gives preferential treatment to nonprofit organizations whose policies and practices are driven by the following: clearly defined mission, organizational documents, governing body, governance and management policies, financial statements, transparency and accountability, auditing provisions, provisory for the amendment of the statutes or articles of incorporation, provisions for the dissolution of the entity, tax statuses of corporate and private donors, and tax status of the founders.
Overview of ULAA’s organizational structure and functions
Before unpacking the strange set of structural dynamics between this nonprofit board, general membership, and executive officers, a brief description of the ULAA organizational structure and core functional powers, with specific references to the general membership, board of directors, and administration, is in order.
The mission of ULAA is to promote unity amongst Liberians living in North America and those in the homeland, provide for their common good, and advocate for political, social, and economic developments in Liberia. This mission is enshrined in the preamble of the ULAA Constitution, which is the governing document of the organization. The Constitution is the supreme bylaws that govern the organization and all of its member state chapters. This means that not only must all member state chapters adopt the ULAA Constitution; they must also abide by and govern in accordance with the ULAA Constitution. The organizational structure, also referred to as structure of the union, has four governing organs: The national general assembly, national board of directors, national administration, and the national leadership council. Chapters VIII, IX, X, and XI of the constitution describe the functional powers of the national general assembly, board of directors, and administration, and president of the organization, respectively.
The national general assembly is composed of all Liberian community associations, Liberian county organizations, and non-Liberian organizations that have registered in their resident states and have been chartered by the ULAA board of directors in accordance with the ULAA Constitution. The national general assembly is the highest decision-making body; it approves all policies of the organization. The assembly meets annually, in September; and its decisions, based on votes by official delegates from accredited member state chapters in good standing, are final and binding. The assembly elects the national board of directors and executive officers (also known as national administration) of the organization.
The ULAA national board of directors is the legislative body, and its membership is composed of two elected members from each member state chapter. It meets in regular sessions twice a year. The functions of the board include, electing its own set of officers and developing and implementing policies necessary for conduct of business; chartering of new member chapters as recommended by the national president; suspension or revocation of charter of member chapters; approvals of presidential appointments, budgets, contracts, and elections law; and conducting impeachment hearings of executive officers and members of semi-autonomous commissions.
The national administration is composed of the national president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, financial secretary, regional vice presidents, standing committees, and semi-autonomous commissions. With the exception of the standing committees and semi-autonomous commissions, members of the administration are elected officers; they are elected by the national assembly for a two-year term, with a two-term limit. The president is the chief executive officer (CEO) and spokesperson of the administration. The primary functional power of the administration is running and managing the daily activities of the organization. The functional powers of the president include, establishing all committees and semi-autonomous commissions of the organizations, control of all organization’s bank accounts, calling and presiding over meetings of the organization including special and emergency meetings of the board of directors, and control of member state chapter applications and review processes.
First imputation: ULAA’s atypical corporate structural dynamics
The number one major root cause of the failure of Liberian community nonprofits to develop their communities – the failure to build or acquire their own community centers – is the weird, atypical structural dynamics between the board of directors, the general assembly, and the executive committee officers, especially the president or CEO. A close comparative review of the ULAA Constitution, with specific references to the structural dynamics between the organization’s various organs, vis-à-vis its member state chapters, shows an incredibly disturbing departure from the norms of nonprofit corporate governance. Many of the core functional powers of the board, critical to corporate governance and development of sustainable policies in conducting the business of the organization to ensure realization of the organization’s mission, are instead, assigned to the general membership and the executive officers. This atypical delegation of power is insidiously systemic in the weakening of the board. The inescapable reality is that these atypical, structural dynamics result in the complete “emasculation of the board of directors”, according to one corporate attorney.
Against this backdrop, let us now unpack the strange structural dynamics between the ULAA national assembly, board of directors, and administration. The current delegation of functional powers and the interactions between the three major organs of ULAA deviate substantially from the standard practices that typically undergird nonprofit corporate governance between the general membership, board of directors, and officers of the organization. The deviations are more pronounced in three critical functional areas.
The first critical structural problem area is the establishment of two groups of officers of the organization: officers of the board of directors, authorized by Chapter IX, and the administrative officers, as codified in Chapter X of the ULAA constitution. Typically, a nonprofit organization, from a corporate perspective, has not two, but one and only one group of officers: chair or president, secretary, treasurer, one or more vice chairs or vice presidents, assistant secretaries, and assistant treasurers. Not only is there no utility in having two groups of officers of the organization, but it also makes absolutely no sense. This dysfunctional dynamic and delegation of powers magnifies at the deepest level just how uninformed members of the organizations are about the typical nonprofit structural functions.
For example, one critical concept that is least understood especially by members of ULAA and its state chapters is the structural element that inherently constitutes officers as directors or members of the board. Yes – this is worth repeating – officers are also members of the board of directors. The veracity of this concept is born out in many state statutes, including New Jersey, which empower board members to serve simultaneously as both directors and officers, with the exception that the president cannot serve simultaneously as the secretary. It is in this vein that Board Source defines officers as members of the board that have been given additional responsibilities to run the daily activities of the organization.
While it is not illegal for the general membership to elect officers of the organization, it is, however, generally an expedient practice for the general membership to cede this power to the board – and its directors should be the ones to elect or appoint the officers of the organization in order to increase efficiency. There are three primary drivers for this efficiency. First, directors are the ones who establish the criteria for the caliber of talented managers that are needed to implement the policies that have been instituted by the board for carrying out the mission of the organization. Second, its inherent small size makes the board of directors the appropriately requisite organ to conduct interviews of candidate officers of the organization.
By contrast, the inherent large number of members of the general assembly makes it very inefficient for the general membership to conduct interviews of candidate officers of the organization. Contrastingly, this is the reason why for-profit corporations only allow human resource managers – not the entire workforce – to conduct interviews of job-seeking candidates. The final critical driver is proximity. Unlike members of the general assembly who meet in regular session and vote once a year, and do not get to see the officers again until the following year, it is the board of directors that has close proximity to the officers. The directors are the ones on the ground; they are ones who can readily observe experientially the actions of officers and the resultant impacts of those actions on the organization within the context of carrying out the organization’s mission. It is for these reasons, especially for efficiency, that the board should rightfully be allowed to readily fill vacancies on the executive committee in order to conduct the business of the organization, and not have to wait until the general assembly meets the following year. This is one of the major reasons why nonprofit organizations typically require that the board be in complete control of the officers – for officers should serve at the will and pleasure of the board, if high efficiency is to be maintained.
Regarding board size, it is worth mentioning that while the number of members of the ULAA board is smaller than the general assembly, however, in comparison with the norm, the current number of ULAA board members (as a function of two representatives per state chapter, with more than 20 member- state chapters) is extremely larger than the typical nonprofit board. Therefore, the size of the ULAA board needs to be streamlined in accordance with nonprofit standards to ensure efficiency.
According to two surveys conducted by Board Effect in 2000 and 2007, the average size of nonprofit boards, excluding churches, was 17 and 16, respectively. Most state statutes require a minimum nonprofit board size of three members. Notwithstanding, experts recommend that annual budgets be a factor in determining board size. For example, nonprofit organizations with annual budgets of more than $10 million have an average board size of 18 members, and nonprofit organizations with annual budgets of less than $1 million have about 14 board members.
The second critical structural problem area of atypicality is the vast powers granted to the president under Chapter XI, Article 2 of the ULAA Constitution, to nominate members of committees – standing and ad hoc committees, semi-autonomous commissions, ways & means, and audit committees. Typically, in a nonprofit corporation, the board has the corporate powers to establish all committees, according to MissionBox. This power allows the board to form and disband committees at its discretion in order to efficiently conduct business of the organization. The utility of committees is to reduce the workload of the board by taking responsibility for some tasks in order to help increase efficiency in conducting business of the organization. Committees are defined by their level of authority and duration. Committees that have delegated board powers are called board committees, and their membership is limited to directors. Committees without delegated board powers are called non-board committees. These are generally referred to advisory committees, though many of them do take on more tasks that are not purely advisory. These advisory committees are open to both board and non-board members and to individuals from outside the organization. Committees that exist on a permanent basis are called standing committees, and those that are created on a temporary basis to serve short term needs are called ad hoc committees. The board’s discretion for committee formation, according to MissionBox, must be guided by three critical factors: a fundamental understanding of the construct of a committee (in terms of board vs. non-board committee and standing vs. ad hoc committees), specific service tasks and their durations and whether performing such tasks will increase efficiency. Generally, nonprofit boards tend to have a plethora of standing and ad hoc committees. Common standing committees are governance or nominating, finance/audit, executive, and development committees. And common ad hoc committees are site, executive director search, strategic planning, and special situations committees.
The board has complete corporate governance and oversight powers on formation and abolishment of committees including, but not limited to, their level of authority, size, duration, and definition scope of responsibility. However, one major unintended consequence is that boards with a large number of committees tend to be less efficient. Over the past two to three decades, nonprofit boards have sought ways to streamline the number of committees in order to increase efficiency. One emerging and optimal solution to this problem is the adoption of a three-committee model by many nonprofit boards in addition to an executive committee: The governance committee is responsible for recruiting new members, conducting orientation, producing board materials, and evaluating the performance of the board itself; the Internal affairs committee is charged with handling all internal and operational issues related to finance, investments, capital acquisitions, human resources and facilities; and the External affairs committee is responsible for all external issues, including fundraising, public relations, publications and marketing.
According to MissionBox, the three-committee approach has various advantages, such as: each board member only needs to serve on one committee at a time; fewer committees means fewer committee meetings, which translates to less work for staff and fewer demands on board members — and more time to focus on tasks rather than logistics (such as scheduling, preparing and managing meetings); because of their small number and the direct tie to the leadership of the board, the accountability lines of the three committees are clearer; and board meetings can be organized around reports from the three committees, reinforcing the importance of their work.
The final critical structural problem area is the atypical control of the organization’s finances by the national administration and president, as codified in Chapter XXV of the ULAA Constitution, which gives the president complete control of the organization’s bank accounts. This is an existential threat – especially in the absence of a conflict-of-interest clause within the Constitution – with specific reference to maintaining the organization’s 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. According to the Internal Revenue Service, “Directors are stewards of a charity’s financials and other resources.” For this reason and especially for Form 990 reporting purposes, the IRS recommends the board or authorized-board committees to not only effectively manage and ensure the financial resources are disbursed accordingly in order to meaningfully further the charitable mission and purposes of the organization, but also the board must ensure the organization’s finances are systemically accounted for. They must require regular submittals of financial statements from the finance committee and/or an auditor, so they can review those statements regularly in order to ensure compliance with IRS recordkeeping and reporting requirements.
Second imputation: Ever-looming rashes of internal conflicts
The second major root cause of underdevelopment of the Liberian community is the ever-looming, seemingly incurable rashes of internal conflicts that have insidiously weakened ULAA and continue to bedevil the umbrella organization and its member state chapters. The rashes of internal conflicts are caused primarily by a major birth defect or inherent corporate structural defect. The member-driven organizational structure is the embodiment or manifestation of this birth defect – members are inherently susceptible to manipulation by corrupt leadership. The foundational corporate structure of ULAA and its member state chapters are of the member-driven type of nonprofits. As discussed above under nonprofit overview, there are two nonprofit types: board-driven nonprofit organizations and member-driven nonprofit organizations. Board-driven nonprofits have self-perpetuating boards; they are more efficient than member-driven nonprofits primarily because they do not have members or, if they do, the general membership does not have statutory or voting rights. This is the primary reason why the majority of the more than 1.5 million tax-exempt nonprofit organizations that report to the IRS have a board-driven corporate structure.
For example, the American Automobile Association (AAA) commonly known as Triple A and the American Association of Retired Persons (also known as AARP) are two of the million plus nonprofits that have a board-driven structure. Interestingly, it is worth noting that many Liberians belong to these two board-driven nonprofits, especially to Triple A, primarily because of the attractive benefits these organizations offer their members. Take Triple A for example, the annual membership fee for a Triple A Plus Membership package is about $124, and the motorist member is guaranteed the following annual benefits: Classic benefits (roadside assistance: up to four towings of 3-7 miles per year; fuel, flat tire, dead battery services, car lockout services up to $50), plus four tows up to 100 miles each, free fuel delivery, and a higher lockout limit of $100 per year, not to mention the many travel-related discounts. With an additional $40, the motorist member gets upgraded to the Premier membership package ($164 per year), which comes with even more greater benefits, including trip disruption coverage of up to $1,500 and a one-day free rental car with tow. Here is the point: the evidence shows, unequivocally, that even though they do not have voting rights, members still pay their annual membership fees, and do not withdraw their membership or go to war with Triple A because they do not have voting rights. Why? Simply because members are happy with the many good benefits that Triple A offers, especially the security of road-side assistance and the savings discounts for travel related costs.
This, then, begs the question, if Liberians are willing to pay an annual membership fee of more than $160 to Triple A – an organization in which they have absolutely no statutory or voting rights, but simply for the benefits – then why are Liberians obstinately unwilling to do the same for their own community nonprofit organizations? Why do they view and act as if the election of president and other executive officers were a life and death matter? There are nefarious reasons for these structural processes. They are discussed below under the issue of corrupt intent.
Comparatively, notwithstanding, I would argue that Liberian community nonprofit organizations, despite these challenges, do offer greater tangible benefits than Triple A. Take a typical Liberian Community Association for example. For a small monthly membership fee of $5 per person (or $60 annually, which, by the way, is only about 37% of the Triple-A annual membership fees), members are offered several tangible benefits including, but not limited to, financial and technical assistance for planning wedding events, moral and financial support during bereavements, hospital visits, community celebrations of birthday and student graduation events, community sports and social events that further enrich and deepen the cultural heritage of Liberians. Imagine the possibilities and opportunities that could unfold with an additional package of rich benefits those members would enjoy if the organization were to secure its own community center. But I digress.
The member-driven corporate structure of ULAA and its member state chapters have an inherent structural weakness that makes them highly susceptible to internal conflicts. This foundational weakness is invariably exploited by leaders with corrupt intent. This systemic exploitation usually leads to internal conflicts, thereby making the organization a breeding ground for community division.
What is corrupt intent? And how is it operationalized? Corrupt intent is simply one’s desire to attain a personal gain, reward, or benefit by using illegal means. One common illegal scheme is the payment of bribes. A bribe is usually manifested as a quid pro quo – a Latin phrase that simply means this for that. In practical terms, it means, I’ll give you this, if you give me that – or I’ll give you this thing, if you give me what I want.
Personal gains, within the context of ULAA leadership and especially the leadership of its member state chapters, include, but are not limited to, winning an election by corrupt means – by payment of bribes – for personal popularity, personalism (the big man or big woman), privatization of organization’s funds for personal expenses, winning favors with and the willingness to have their organization be co-opted by Liberian politicians on the home front, achieving political aspiration at the expense of the organization, and using the organization as a springboard to attain a political position within the Government of Liberia.
When operationalized over time, corruption becomes institutionalized, systemic, and insidiously destructive. Corruption directly threatens not only unity within an organization and the larger community but also its viability and legitimacy. It alienates key positive influential individuals of the general membership and high net-worth potential partners or honorary board members, discredits the leadership, undermines donor support, subverts organizational functions and bylaws, robs the organization of revenue, and creates barriers to effectively carrying out the organization’s mission.
Here’s an empirical presentation of one ULAA member state chapter that will remain unnamed, where institutionalized corruption and its resulting insidious destructiveness are manifested at the community level. The organization is part of a larger Liberian community that’s been around since the 1960s, and it’s one of the founding chapters of ULAA. At this member state chapter, the payment of bribes at presidential elections is an acceptable customary practice; it usually takes place in the following situation:
The general election for president is held every two years in accordance with the Constitution, which requires members to be in good standing on their annual membership dues in order to be eligible to vote. Most members are usually never current on their membership dues; many of them never attend organization meetings, except on Election Day; and as a result, they are in a one to two-year arrearage by Election Day. Usually more than half of the general membership is in at least one-year arrearage. So, for a total membership of 600-700 persons, more than 300 – 350 members are usually in arrears by Election Day. This means each member who is not in-good standing or non-current must pay the $60 arrearage in order to be eligible to vote on Election Day. Unfortunately, these non-current members won’t pay the $60 arrearage on their own volition in order to be in-good standing and vote. Habitually, they would rather have a presidential candidate pay it for them – this is the operationalization of a quid pro quo. In cost totality, the outstanding arrearages calculate to about $18,000 – $21,000 based on 300-350 non-current members and $60 annual due. So, what does this mean for a presidential candidate who wants to win – and win at all cost? For starters, the candidate sees a very fertile ground for planting a seed – an investment seed of corruption – a $20,000 quid pro quo – to make 300-350 delinquent members current on their annual dues, so they can vote for him or her. Now, if the candidate doesn’t readily have this fund available, he or she will go to the extreme extent and borrow it from a bank and/or family and friends. So, with a promise to vote for the candidate, the candidate fulfills his or her end of the bargain by paying their annual arrearage dues in full; they’re subsequently declared in-good standing by the elections committee or commission; they vote for the candidate as promised; and the presidential candidate secures a victory with majority of the votes. This is the culture.
Let’s pull the thread here on this corrupt intent, beginning with the $20,000 question: For a simple, mundane community nonprofit election, why would a candidate vying for president go the extraordinarily unbelievable extent of personally borrowing and spending $20,000 for the sole purpose of bringing 300-350 non-current or delinquent members into good-standing status, so those members can be eligible to vote and elect him or her? The answer is very simple: for corrupt intent and purposes. The payment of the $60 arrearage for each of the 300-350 members to vote for the candidate is the bribe or the quid pro quo: the “this for that “, or the “I’ll pay your $60 arrearage, if you promise to vote for me”. But becoming president is just the first milestone in the greater scheme of diabolical intent and purposes. The return on the $20,000 investment for the new president is insidious and incredibly vast and extends beyond the election and the organization, within the context of economic, political, and social benefits.
Take repayment of the $20,000 loan for example. Will the new president repay the loan out of his or her own pocket, or use the organization’s funds through corrupt means? The latter seems an attractive path. Normally, and from a moral perspective, one would expect the president to pay back the $20,000 out of his or her own pocket, but unfortunately the president and his or her administrative team will create all sorts of diabolical schemes to funnel and privatize the organization’s funds for the repayment of the $20,000 and other personal expenses.
These diabolical schemes surgically target, with the ultimate objective of bleeding the organization’s two main revenue generating streams: the inauguration ball proceeds and the community center building fund. So, let’s take a sample of each of these revenue streams and analyze them, with specific references to identifying their delivery capacity for generating funding for the organization, vis-a-vis the insidiously embedded debilitating social parasites and pathogens that have and continue to systemically drain the organization’s financial resources and paralyze its fundraising prowess for carrying out its mission, and stymie community development.
The typical inaugural ball usually generates about $20,000 to $30,000 per two-year cycle of the presidential election, based on an estimated 200-300 attendees and average ticket price of $100 per person. So, with a conservative estimate over the two-year cycle for presidential election, the inaugural ball revenue stream has the capacity of generating about $100,000 to $150,000 over a 10-year period or five-presidential election cycles. Now imagine a higher attendance of 400 to 500 people at an average ticket price of $100 per person, the organization would generate about $200,000 to $250,000 over a 10-yr period (based on $40,000-$50,000 per two-year cycle), just from the inaugural ball revenue stream, excluding overhead which averages between 20-35 percent.
According to the Council of Nonprofits, overhead or indirect cost – is the cost of carrying out the organization’s mission using management, general services, and fundraisers. So, using a maximum rate of 35% to account for an overhead of $70,000 to $87,500, the inaugural ball revenue stream would generate a net total of about $130,000 to $162,500 over a 10-year period. This is a significant amount of money; but unfortunately, there are no meaningful structural processes or mechanisms within the organization to account for the inaugural revenue stream over each two-year cycle. There are no checks and balances. These funds are exclusively controlled by the executive committee or the president’s inaugural committee. This is another example of the complete emasculation of the board of directors.
Unlike the inaugural ball revenue stream which has a capacity of generating $40,000 to $50,000 per two-year cycle, the community center fundraiser has a higher revenue-generating capacity. It’s held once a year, and with an average ticket price of $250 per person, the community center fundraiser can generate about $50,000 to $75,000 annually, based on 200-300 attendees, and $100,000 to $125,000 per year, based on 400-500 attendees. And with a 35% overhead, this nets out to $48,750 to $81,250 per year, or $487,500 to $812,000 over a 10-year period. However, it’s worth noting here that the organization does not really need 10 years to start building a community center; it only needs about one to two years to generate enough funds to make a meaningful down payment of 20-30% on a mortgage loan of $250,000 to $300,000.
Given that the inaugural ball revenue stream can generate $40,000 to $50,000 per two-year cycle, based on 400-500 attendees and average ticket price of $100 per person, and given the community center fundraiser is capable of generating $100,000 to $125,000 per year, based on 400-500 attendees and average ticket price of $250 per person, when combined, both the presidential inaugural ball revenue stream and the community center fundraiser revenue stream have a combined capacity of generating a total of $240,000 to $300,000 within two years.
This, then, re-begs the $250,000 question: in light of the existing incredible funding delivery capacities of the presidential inaugural ball and the community-center fundraiser revenue generating streams, why are ULAA and its member state chapters completely incapable of meaningfully developing their communities? Why have they failed miserably at and continue to spin their wheels at building or acquiring their own community centers? This failure is primarily due to the systemic corruption that is designed to privatize the organization’s funds.
For example, the community center fundraiser, within the historical context of Liberian communities across the U.S., is likened unto the old joke about the “church building fund”. Church members, year in, year out, give their special offerings towards the church building fund – fund for a church building that never gets repaired, or at times never gets built at all. Similarly, every new president almost always creates a community center building fund. Money is raised year in, year out for a community center that never gets built or acquired. It has been more than fifty years, and this insanity continues.
While the amount of money that has gone into the community center building fund over the last fifty years – for a center that never got built or acquired – is unknown, one thing is certain. We now have a clear lens through which we can get some sort of insight into the amount of money that has gone through a typical ULAA member state chapter. As discussed above, the presidential inaugural ball revenue stream and the community center fundraiser revenue stream have a combined capacity of generating a total of $240,000 to $300,000 within two years. When extrapolated over 50 years, this totals about $6,000,000 to $7,500,000. From a broader perspective, another way of looking at this is that a typical member chapter has the capacity of generating massive amounts of money to build or acquire 25 community centers over the next 50 years, with all things being equal.
Third Imputation: Lack of soul commitment to the community
It has been said that each of us has a soulmate. What is and who is a soulmate? In his New York Times-Best Seller, Anam Cara, the late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue brilliantly penned these descriptive words:
“Anam is the Gaelic word for soul; cara is the word for friend. So, anam cara means soul friend. The anam cara was a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the friend of your soul.”
Each of us has a soulmate; some have found theirs; while others are still searching. Deeply wedded to that ancient and eternal covenant of belonging and love, soulmates will do anything for each other, to the extent of literally giving their lives for the other, because of the deep love they have for one another. Marriage was founded on this friendship. In this vein, however, I would argue, that long before finding your soulmate out there in the world, our mothers were our first soulmates, with God being the Ultimate Soul Friend and Father. As the first soulmates, mothers not only provided the nurturing foundation for practicing love, commitment to, and protecting one another, but they also knew the hidden secrets of their children. A mother will do anything for her child, and a loving child will, likewise, do anything for his or her mother.
At the individual level, the soulmate complemented the other. Metaphorically, our birth or adopted country is our mother – our collective anam cara – our collective soul friend. The love of mother-country or motherland is the primary reason why citizens enlist in the military, as guardians of the polis. It is the reason why citizens are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend the motherland and protect their fellow citizens.
The Gospel of John records these words of Jesus, our Ultimate Anam Cara -The Savior of us all: Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends.
But what is a country? A country is the geographical sum of its states, counties, towns, villages, and communities. Long before there was a thing called country, there were villages and communities. Collectively, a country is the embodiment of its communities. A country is as strong as its towns, villages, and communities. And a community is as strong as the common bond between its residents and the deep commitment they have to each other.
According to Northern Ireland’s leading business and public policy magazine, AgendaNI, the attributes of a good community are cohesiveness, safety, confidence, prosperity, and happiness. A good community is a place where there’s no poverty nor crime. It is a place where every resident is afforded a high quality of life. It values and gives voice to everyone to freely participate in the decision-making process for developing their community – economically, socially, and politically – in maintaining a continuous improvement culture. Indeed, these attributes are driven by that eternal covenant of a soul-friend.
W.E.B. Du Bois prophetically said in Souls of Black Folks (Souls) that oppression has a way of exacting payment on both the oppressor and the oppressed. Unlike the typical good community, the Liberian community is bedeviled by many debilitating challenges – there are two strands – and they are the reasons why there is a lack of soul commitment to the Liberian community. The first culprit is a socially debilitating hereditary trait – a national birth defect. As a people, we were born in a country that had no meaningful sensibility of and commitment to true nationalism and cultural identity and heritage. Our foundation of meaning was grounded in a dominant culture that viewed things through the white supremacy lens of classism. This resulted in an unwritten but practiced policy of Black Apartheid – a national Manichaean madness that viewed native Liberians as an existential threat. It began with the subversion of Scripture in order to dehumanize native Liberians: The tender mercy of a heathen is cruelty, as the old saying goes, which begs the exegetical question, who is the heathen in Proverb 12:10?
It is said that the only difference between Liberia’s and South Africa’s Apartheid systems is that Liberia’s Apartheid was a stealth, black-on-black slow violent enterprise, and as such, the international community couldn’t see it; and for those leaders of western democratic countries who knew about it, simply chose to ignore it or remain silent. This is contrasted with the high visibility and continuous news coverage by the global media of what was happening in South Africa. Peace and loving people around the world demonstrated in solidarity for the freedom of black South Africans.
Liberia’s Manichaean policy madness of subjugation of native Liberians or the so-called “country” or “uncivilized” predates South Africa’s 1948 Apartheid policy by more than a century, with the arrival of the freed slaves from America in 1821. The 14-year Civil War that plunged Liberia into the abyss can be imputed to this Manichaean madness. Today, many of us are still being hunted by the ghost of this madness; and many continue to live by this Manichean ideology, despite the barbaric destruction that it brought to Liberia, including especially the deaths of more than a quarter million Liberians.
The Congo-Country and civilized-uncivilized stereotypical binaries are like a chemical reaction’s free radicals that have an inherent tendency to prevent or destabilize the unfolding of possibilities and opportunities for transformation, including especially the moral imagination for the greater good – a greater good that can transcend hate, classism, and tribalism. Unfortunately, these negative binary stereotypes continue to insidiously permeate every aspect of the Liberian citizenry, including its diasporic communities.
Here in the U.S., Liberian community organizations are their own enemy. Many of the highly educated, well-accomplished Liberians, who could otherwise make a real positive difference in transforming their communities, are imprisoned by their own Manichaean madness. To them, it’s no good if it ain’t made in Monrovia. In other words, one is not welcome, if one is not from one of the old Monrovia circles – the same elite neighborhood, private high school, and/or same social class. Of all the boys that lived in Liberia before the abyss, only certain boys – “Monrovia boys” – were allowed to pick up that precious and sweet one-cent candy – that sweet mouth-watering candy that’s made only in Liberia. To them, it’s unacceptable if the organization’s president is not one of them – if he or she is not a Monrovia boy or girl, or if he or she is not a relative of someone who is a product of Monrovia.
This penchant for superciliousness or classism not only causes friction, strife, envy, polarization, tribalism, and cynicism within the organization, but it also has a tendency to metastasize into the larger community, wreaking havoc on the moral fabric of the community, thereby impeding its progress and growth. And as a result, there is no cohesiveness nor any meaningful commitment to each other; there is no genuine love or empathy for those who are viewed as the othernesses; and there is no moral imagination – the moral imagination that the children of the so-called “elite” or “upper class” and the children of the othernesses could one day become friends, even to the extent of becoming husbands and wives. But thank God for America – our post-conflict epiphany!
The second major reason for the absence of soul commitment to the community is simply the lack of self-respect. As discussed above in the Second Imputation, the majority of members usually do not pay their membership dues on their own volition. They will purposefully accrue a one to two-year arrearage over every presidential election cycle for the sole intent of selling their vote to a candidate who is willing to settle their one- to two-year arrearage in order to bring them into good-standing status. This lack of self-respect and the propensity to sell one’s vote has had a devastating effect on the organization. Members have normalized the privatization of community’s funds by the manipulation of corrupt leaders. As previously discussed, the return on investment for a presidential candidate with a corrupt intent is incredibly extensive; it is more than just securing the votes of all those who were brought into good-standing status and winning the presidency. Those members are now beholden to the new president. With corrupt intent, the new president can leverage the support of supporters, especially those that are beholden to him or her, in order to repay himself or herself by surreptitiously diverting the organization’s funds as part of his or her return on investment. These challenges have and continue to systemically exact a payment on the soul of the Liberian community. And the schism caused by these excavations has completely rendered the community poorer, vulnerable, and incapable of realizing its development potentials.
The penchant for superciliousness and the lingering ghost of classism and the lack of self-respect will never be exorcized from the community until there is rebirth – a rebirth of the soul – a rebirth of the mind – along with the courage to pick up what the Quaker wiseman Parker Palmer calls the broken pieces – and reaffirm ourselves with a deep commitment to the developing our community.
Electing an Effective Board of Directors
The rebirth of the soul of the Liberian diasporic community begins here. If we want to minimize and eradicate the ever-looming rashes of bedeviling incurable internal conflicts – if we want to catapult the community on a trajectory of meaningful development including especially, acquiring or building our own community centers – and if we want to deepen our moral imaginations and soul commitment to the community by mainstreaming the organization’s mission of promoting unity and our cultural heritage, and providing meaningful charitable services, then there has to be a reawakening – there has to be a paradigm shift. ULAA and its member state chapters must change the 50-year-old atypical practice of electing officers at the expense of the board of directors.
To these ends, I would like to propose five critical constitutional amendments to effectuate this rebirth – and this is where the rubber meets the road – if we really desire to be catapulted on the trajectory of meaningful community development. They are as follows:
- The general membership or assembly needs to cede power to the board of directors by electing and empowering the board of directors with the corporate power and authority to elect or appoint the officers of the organization, just like the majority of the more than 1.5 million nonprofits operating in the U.S. today;
- The board should also be granted the power to appoint or hire an executive director, as this is the standard practice of most nonprofits;
- The board should be empowered to appoint honorary board members from within and outside the community. Honorary board members are influential and high net-worth individuals who not only can make substantial donations to the organization, but they also have the wherewithal of expanding the reach of the organization;
- A corollary to this change is to dispel the misunderstanding or misperception that officers are different from the members of the board. Officers are actually members of the board. According to Board Source, and this is worthy of amplification, officers are defined as those members of the board who have been given the additional responsibility of running the day-to-day affairs of the organization. Interestingly, this is revealing. This definition is rooted in most state nonprofit statutes which give board members, directors, or trustees the power to hold dual positions, with the exception that the president cannot also serve as secretary. This is the typical and normal corporate governance structure of the 1.5 million nonprofits operating in the U.S. today; and
- These changes, along with the definition of officers (that officers are those members of the board who have been given the additional responsibility of running the day-to-day affairs of the organization) should be codified in the ULAA Constitution as well as the Constitution of each of its member state chapters.
What is an effective board?
Unlike the typical, normal nonprofit board of directors whose members can at times be in name only, disengaged and uninformed about the priority goals of the organization, distrustful of and engaged in the micromanagement of the executive director, the effective board brings robustness to the corporate governance of the organization. Not only will the effective board strengthen these weaknesses and challenges but will also transcend the negative dynamic between the board chair and the CEO or executive director.
Let me be clear here: the effective board is not a panacea. While it may not be able to solve all of our problems, the effective board will certainly make things a heck of a lot better. But making things better is a very tall order, and it will require incredible courage.
For the board to be effective, it will require a deep corporate introspection in finding and doing what the Harvard Business Review (HBR) calls the “new work” or “work that matters”. According to its September 1996 Issue, “the new work of the nonprofit board”, the new work of the board has four basic characteristics:
- The board’s new work focuses itself on and prioritizes the crucial, do-or-die issues central to the success of the organization;
- The New work is driven by results that are linked to defined timetables;
- It has a clear measure of success; and
- The new work requires the engagement of the organization’s internal and external stakeholders.
When operationalized, these four fundamental elements will propel the new work in generating extraordinary levels of enthusiasm and interest and demanding broad participation and deep commitment and widespread support, according to HBR.
The New Work of the Board Requires Doing Things Differently
To be effective, there must be a paradigm shift in structural policymaking and the conventional dynamic between the board and the executive committee – meaning the board must do things differently by inventing new practices within the context of creating a collaborative space between the board and the CEO or executive director in order to successfully carry out the mission of the organization, according to HBR.
So, here is the transformative question: What does all of this mean for the ULAA board and the boards of its member state chapters in emulating and implementing the new work concept within the context of mainstreaming the organization’s goals in order to catapult the community on a trajectory of unity and meaningful development?
Unlike most nonprofit boards, there is a critical prerequisite for the ULAA board and the boards of its member state chapters, if they are to implement the new work concept, in order to transform not just the corporate governance and the structural policies and institutional dynamics within their organizations but more importantly, to achieve a meaningful community development, including especially acquiring or building their own community centers.
Why this critical prerequisite? The reason is that the current construct of the ULAA board and the boards of its member state chapters is atypical, as discussed above under the Second Imputation. Therefore, the critical prerequisite is to first normalize the ULAA board and the boards of its member state chapters by implementing the proposed five recommended critical constitutional changes delineated above – in order to bring these nonprofit boards into the mainstream so they are typical of the 1.5 million nonprofit boards operating in the U.S. today. It begins with a deep understanding and ridding the organization of the root causes of the systemic problems that have and continue to bedevil the institution, and doing away with the rot and old practices that have stymied community progress. After these boards have been normalized and brought into the mainstream, they will now have the opportunity to assess their capacity and the requisite deep commitment and courage for embracing a new paradigm shift within the context of carrying out the new work.
According to HBR, operationalizing the new work will require institutionalizing and standardizing nine critical actionable items: 1) Find out what matters, 2) Make the CEO paint the big picture, 3) Get to know the organizations’ stakeholders, 4) Consult experts especially industry experts from within and outside the organization, 5) Decide what needs to be measured, 6) Act on what matters, 7) Organize around what matters, 8) Focus meetings on what matters, and 9) Focus on the constellation, not the stars.
The board will do well in advancing the new work if it can develop a set of standard operating procedures (SOP) for the nine critical action items. But advancing the new work will require a deep commitment to the organization’s mission, combined with the requisite expertise of each board member. The nonprofit boards cannot simply be a collection of high-powered individuals engaged in low-level activities, according HBR. This means that the general membership or general assemblies of ULAA and its member state chapters should elect board candidates who have the wherewithal of carrying out the new work in order to catapult their organizations on the trajectory of meaningful community development and transformation.
This begs the question, who is a good board candidate?
According to Board Source, there are six characteristics of a good board member, and they are as follows: 1) Board chair’s willingness to create a collaborative partnership with the CEO or executive director, as this is one of the critical elements for ensuring a strong board and a transformative organization. The board chair-CEO partnership must be grounded in trust; 2) Gift of listening – especially to diversity of opinions and perspectives, not just participating – as this will effectuate member engagement and robust discussion during board meetings; 3) Fair-mindedness, especially in understanding the critical balance between giving the CEO enough room to manage the organization and ensuring that ethical standards are met, and not micromanaging the CEO; 4) Boldness in asking not just tough questions but also naïve questions that others want to ask but lack the courage to do so; 5) Ambassador of the organization, grounded in the deep understanding of the awesome responsibility that comes with that role; and 6) Enthusiastic in learning about and helping the organization.
Need for Honorary Board Members and High Net-Worth Donors
One of the pillars of a strong board is its honorary board members. Honorary board members are influential individuals, including especially high net-worth individuals who are friends of Liberia, who not only can make substantial donations to advance the mission of the organization and its sustainability, but they also have the wherewithal of expanding the reach of the organization. There are two categories of honorary board members: high net-worth individuals are those whose net-worth is less than $50 million dollars, and ultra-high net-worth individuals are those whose net-worth is more than $50 million dollars.
Unlike the typically normal nonprofit board, the ULAA board and the boards of its member state chapters, as stated previously, do not have high net-worth members, much less ultra-high net-worth donors, primarily because there are no provisions for honorary board membership in their respective constitutions or bylaws. So, their constitutions need to be amended accordingly to empower each board to appoint honorary board members from within and outside their communities in order for them to carry out the mission of their organization, within the context of the new work – that is, work that matters – as prescribed by the Harvard Business Review.
Another critical driver for the need of high net-worth board members is that their annual membership dues are a source of recurring substantial revenue generation. The revenue generation capacity increases with the catalyst of a tier-board membership structure – the higher the tier, the higher the annual dues, starting in the low thousands for lower-tier members. According to the Business Journals, a 2010 survey recorded an average board membership renewal rate that ranged from 50 to 79 percent, which ensures a viable and sustainable revenue generating stream.
Another important utility of having high net-worth and ultra-high net-worth donors on the board is that their very presence will undoubtedly help keep other lower-tier board members and the organization as whole in check. As a people, we (Liberians) have always had a deep respect for strangers; we tend to behave ourselves when there are strangers in our midst, especially when they can help advance the organization and mainstream its goals and objectives.
For the ULAA board and the boards of its member state chapters, courting and attracting high net-worth donors will be historic and extremely challenging, indeed, but immensely rewarding, nonetheless. So, how do nonprofit boards court high net-worth members and donors in order for them to make a substantial donation?
There are several process steps, according to the Business Journals, and they are as follows: 1) Research the background of and prior to meeting the potential donor; 2) Initial connection matters! Find someone from within or outside the organization who knows the potential donor, or through a third party. It’s about networking – it’s whom you know, as the saying goes; 3) Invite the potential donor to your organization; get them to know your core brand of charitable service; let them see the good work the organization is doing in the community and how the money is spent; and this is very critical: show them the expense ratio – which simply means show how much of their money actually goes to supporting the mission; and get them to buy-into the mission; 4) Invite the potential donor to meet the other department heads and board members, and persuade the potential donor to also become an honorary board member; 5) Finally, invite the potential donor at the private donor events.
The Critical Takeaways
The impetus of my text is purported on the hopes that leaders of Liberian nonprofit organizations, especially the leaders of ULAA and its member state chapters would be informed not only about the three major root causes (ULAA’s atypical corporate structural dynamics, ever-looming rashes of internal conflicts, and lack of soul commitment to the community) of the underdevelopment of the Liberian community as a whole for more than 50 years, but also that they would muster the courage to embrace a paradigm shift – the requisite set of changes that will catapult the greater Liberian community on the trajectory of unity and meaningful development, beginning with a deep commitment to building or acquiring their own community centers at ULAA and across the member state chapters.
There are three requisite changes that the leaders of ULAA and its member state chapters must embrace, if they want to stop and ultimately eradicate the insanity that has bedeviled their organizations for over half a century. The first is a set of constitutional amendments to normalize and standardize these organizations, including especially the following: 1) The ULAA National Assembly and the General Assembly of each member state chapter must cede power to their respective boards of directors, by electing and empowering the board with the corporate power and authority to elect or appoint the officers of the organization, just like the majority of the more than 1.5 million nonprofits operating in the U.S. today; 2) The board must also be granted the power to appoint or hire an executive director and the power to establish both standing and ad hoc committees, as this is the standard practice of most nonprofits; 3) Delete or revise Chapter XI, Article 2 and Chapter XXV of the ULAA Constitution, and amend any other parts that may be a contradiction or an undermining of the board’s authority, to ensure consistency; 4) The board must be granted additional corporate power to appoint honorary board members, including especially high net-worth individuals, from within and outside the community; for high net-worth individuals not only have the resources to make substantial donations to the organization, but they also have the wherewithal of expanding the reach of and making substantial donations to the organization; 5) The definition of officers – that officers are those members of the board who have been given the additional responsibility of running the day-to-day affairs of the organization – must be reflected in the amended constitutions; and 6) The ULAA Constitution must reflect only one group of officers and one board of directors.
Second, to be effective, the ULAA board and the boards of its member state chapters must adapt or emulate the new work model as prescribed by the Harvard Business Review.
Finally, at the individual level, we all must also do our utmost to meaningfully help develop our community not just for ourselves but also for posterity. We must muster the courage with moral imagination to embrace the requisite changes, including a reaffirmation of soul commitment to our community to help catapult the community on a trajectory of meaningful transformation. We are a broken people, and the project of moral imagination and soul commitment to our community will not only bring a collective healing to our collective trauma caused by the Manichean madness that has decimated Liberia and continues to imprison many of us, but also it will transcend hate and the propensity for stereotypical name-calling, and effectuate a reaffirmation of love and unity, irrespective of our social class and background.
Let me conclude with a paraphrase of Christian Cultural Center Pastor A.R. Bernard’s admonition on forgetting the past: we (Liberians) must come to terms with our history as a people and learn to interpret it with a positive perspective for a brighter future. It’s time for us to pick up the broken pieces and muster the courage to embrace change. And this starts with a deep introspection to find not only our inner better selves to forgive ourselves, but also to forgive and empathize with our brothers and sisters who might be of a different background or class, with moral imagination – a moral imagination that illuminates the unfolding of possibility and opportunity, that children of different backgrounds or class could be friends tomorrow even to the extent of getting marry and raising their children and teaching them the Liberian cultural heritage, and weaving it within the great American success story. Doing so will not only be transformative, but will also bring us to a new threshold – the threshold of building our own community centers. And if we are blessed to crossover worthily in the success of achieving this historic milestone, we could then apply this model of successful community development across the ULAA member state chapters, and perhaps one day, we could also apply it in the post-conflict transformation of Liberia.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mr. Bennett M. Yalartai is a student of nonprofit organizations, international relations & diplomacy, and a long-time member of the Liberian community Association of North Jersey.
For questions and/or comments on this article, you can also contact the author via phone at: (732) 404-7015, or email at: [email protected].
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