Four lessons for nonprofit boards from the Alban Institute’s obituary

rip_head_stone_400_clr_8871The April 16 issue of Christian Century magazine reported that the  Alban Institute, a resource to mainline Protestant and other congregations for more than four decades, is closing its doors.  This is sad news for America’s churches and the men and women who lead them.

The demise of the Alban Institute is also a cautionary tale for CEOs and boards of faith-based nonprofits of all stripes.

The Christian Century article likely doesn’t tell the whole of what led to the decision by Alban’s board to shut down the organization. But there’s plenty in the piece to inspire a lively discussion at your next board meeting, beginning with the following insights.

WHAT WISE BOARDS KNOW AND FOOLISH BOARDS IGNORE 

1. Mission fulfillment without economic vitality results in no more mission. As is true of most nonprofits, faith-based or otherwise, the Alban Institute excelled in mission fulfillment. For more than 40 years, the organization was the first stop for churches (my own included) in search of books, resources, and consultants on everything from managing conflict, to stewardship, to leadership transition. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Alban’s board and CEO gave equal weight to the organization’s economic vitality. Now, for want of a sustainable business model, the Alban Institute is out of business.

Wise boards are laser focused on matching mission aspirations to economic realities, striving for a just-right balance of the two.

2. Don’t put all the organization’s financial eggs in one basket. According to the Christian Century article, the Alban Institute was overly dependent on the continuing largesse of a single funder. When the funder lost interest (or confidence) in the Institute’s work, the organization was in trouble and without enough time to diversify its financial model. Not that the bottom fell out for Alban overnight. As reported, hard times were felt as early as 2002 and yet the board and CEO continued to trust all the organization’s “eggs” to the same old “basket” for another decade.

Wise boards push for a diversified funding strategy that protects the organization against the whims or changing circumstances of a significant funder or income source.

3. Pay attention to the environment and adapt. Back in the 1980s, the Alban Institute had the church market mostly to itself. However, “as more publishers and consultants got into the business that Alban pioneered, the institution found it difficult to main its niche.”  The board and senior leadership were late in noticing the change — or so the organization’s current plight suggests. Leadership missed the clouds on the organization’s horizon and as a result, were unprepared when the storm(s) hit.

Wise boards are attentive to the external environment and then act to position the organization to capitalize on, and not suffer from, changes coming its way.

4. Collaboration beats competition. As the authors of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits tell us, high-impact organizations “bridge boundaries and work with others to achieve greater levels of change than they could accomplish alone.” The Alban Institute could have leveraged its status as the pioneer in church resourcing to encourage collaboration within the burgeoning community of consultants and publishers focused on strengthening America’s churches. Unfortunately, it seems that Alban’s leadership either ignored opportunities to collaborate or hunkered down in the face of growing competition.

Wise boards are clear about the change they want to see in the world, know who else is working for that change, and position the organization as a collaboration leader rather than competition fighter.

Alban’s mission and financial assets may go to Duke Divinity School and new consultants and centers will help fill the hole created by the Institute’s closing. Once again, we’re reminded that God doesn’t depend upon any one organization to carry out divine purposes. But God does work through organizations and the people who staff them.

The moral of the cautionary tale contained in the Alban Institute’s obituary is this: wise boards make certain their organizations are ready, able, and available to God — today, tomorrow, and for years to come.

For more on themes explored in this article, see:

Trading up to a new funding model

If it’s not broken, fix it anyway

Riding the collaboration bandwagon

 

 

 

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