In recent years, a lot of nonprofit board education has focused on sustainability. Discussions frequently focus on finances: How are we going to maintain our programs? What happens if we hit another recession, or if our major funder disappears?

More sophisticated discussions include sustainability of the physical and governing infrastructure: What can we put in place so we have the board members we need to keep us going? How do we manage succession planning? How do we ensure our roof won’t leak in 5 years?

Fiduciary Responsibilities

However, there is an inherent conflict between sustainability and some of the fiduciary responsibilities of the board. The triumvirate of fiduciary responsibility are Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty and Duty of ObedienceGrantspace gives these succinct definitions:

Duty of care: Board members are expected to actively participate in organizational planning and decision-making and to make sound and informed judgments.

Duty of loyalty: When acting on behalf of the organization, board members must put the interests of the nonprofit before any personal or professional concerns and avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Duty of obedience: Board members must ensure that the organization complies with all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations, and that it remains committed to its established mission.

These duties are almost always refer to the organization. In most materials about fiduciary responsibility the word sustainability doesn’t appear. Not in Grantspace, nor in this Guidestar blog post on fiduciary responsibility, nor in this Bridgespan article. The National Council of Nonprofits references sustainability, but doesn’t define its relationship to the organization.

Potential Conflict

And that leaves us with a question of potential conflict of duties. The Duty of Loyalty says to put the interests of the nonprofit ahead of personal or professional concerns, and Duty of Care says to make sound and informed judgments. Both of these imply that sustainability revolves around the institution – finances, infrastructure, community goodwill.

At the same time, the Duty of Obedience says you must remain committed to the mission. Therein lies the potential conflict. What if keeping the lights on means accepting a grant that takes you away from your mission? What if another institution is better at ensuring all the children in the neighborhood have winter coats? Do you compete against that other institution for a grant that will provide the coats?

If you do, are you fulfilling your Duty of Obedience to the mission?

What happens when the best decision that could be made for advancing the mission is one that means the organization forgoes a grant needed to keep the doors open?  

This is an extreme question, but as the call of sustainability becomes louder, the conflict becomes more evident. Indeed, there is no doubt that every organization will encounter some form of the conflict between sustainability of the nonprofit and obedience to the mission. We all know of institutions guilty of mission drift, as they ‘chase the money’ by creating programs solely for the purpose of getting grants.

What then? What can a board do when confronted with this conflict?

Conflict….or Tension?

Perhaps a redefinition is in order. Conflict implies they cannot coexist. Perhaps a better word than conflict would be tension.

Tension is not a bad thing. It implies an awareness of differences or awareness of an imbalance. Tension can be addressed in a way that affirms the Duty of Obedience while maintaining the Duties of Loyalty and Care.

This tension can only be addressed if it’s acknowledged. When boards isolate discussion of the budget from evaluation of program impact, they are siloing the Duty of Care from the Duty of Obedience. Similarly, discussion of the impact – or cost – of one particular program without the context of the entire organization risks dropping a highly efficacious program due to cost, or keeping a minimally efficacious program solely because it is inexpensive or brings in dollars.

Awareness of the tension opens the path to collaboration among organizations that have the same mission and vision, rather than reinforcing competition or becoming territorial.

Zimmerman and Bell provide one way to address this tension, but the first step is to acknowledge that it exists. It is then up to the board and administration to research and agree on how to address it.

Ultimately, the goal has the same name: sustainability. But it encompasses so much more.