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Board Governance

Why Do New York City Board Members Give More?

Why do board cultures vary so much by geography, and how can we help bring the best of them to all cities?

With offices in five major American cities, I am fascinated by the differences in the nonprofit communities across our country. Although there are certainly more similarities than differences, one area where we at Taproot have noticed some real variance is in boards.

While we have seen this anecdotally over the last ten years, this summer, Financial Dynamics conducted a pro bono survey of 6,000 nonprofit professionals for us that helped to define some of these differences across Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC. There were 420 respondents—organizational size ranged widely, but the vast majority had budgets under $5 million.

One thing that leapt out at us is that New York City has significantly higher donation levels. Average annual giving is between $1,000 and $2,500, and it has nearly double the number of boards with members who give more than $2,500. The average board member across all five cities gives between $500 and $999 annually.

One might assume that this increase in donations is a product of Wall Street. Not so fast. As it turns out, boards in New York City are the least likely to have one or more members with professional financial backgrounds, and one of the most likely to have marketing professionals at the table.

While New York City stands out in the level of board giving, Chicago nonprofit boards stand out in size. The average board across all cities surveyed has 10-14 members. The average board in Chicago has 15-19 members, and 32 percent of those have more than 20 members.

Board turnover also varies by city.  In Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, boards average one seat change per year. In Chicago it’s two, and in Washington DC, three. Given that Chicago has larger boards, the percentage change likely brings it even with the other cities, making the turnover in the nation’s capital stand out.

Both Chicago and DC boards are also 33 percent more likely to have a member dedicated to human resources than the other cities (where numbers are around 20 percent). It may not be related, but I wonder if having HR professionals on a board increases its capacity to grow and to experience healthy turnover?

As I look ahead to the BoardSource Leadership Forum in Atlanta, I am looking forward to sharing this data with my peers and hearing their reaction and insights. Why do board cultures vary so much by geography, and how can we help bring the best of them to all cities?

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.

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COMMENTS

  • Alexandra Larschan, NYU Wagner's avatar

    BY Alexandra Larschan, NYU Wagner

    ON September 20, 2011 01:18 PM

    What are some other factors driving higher board giving in New York City?  Certainly higher income levels in the city are a factor even outside of the finance profession.  It also seems like New York nonprofits have been able to cultivate a culture that has high expectations for board giving and individual contributions as a significant part of their revenue streams.  In addition, many New York nonprofits are older organizations that have built up a strong base of supporters over a number of years.

  • Hmm… I wouldn’t have assumed that the increase in donations resulted from Wall Street anyway because likelihood of giving doesn’t vary directly with personal wealth.

  • Megan Kashner's avatar

    BY Megan Kashner

    ON September 20, 2011 04:24 PM

    I’m not surprised to learn that boards in Chicago are larger, on average, than those in other cities.  In Chicago, all our talk about partnership, collaboration, inclusion and participation is more than just talk.  Most of our organizations’ boards have membership which includes people from at least three buckets:
    1)  Local professionals who can add value through pro bono and charitable involvement
    2)  Local content-area experts specific to the field of practice of the nonprofit
    3)  Local individuals who represent the constituencies served by the nonprofit

    It is on this last point where I see a significant difference between Chicago and nonprofits in other cities.  We value and require ourselves to make possible participation from and of those we seek to serve as well as those who can best advise and inform our work.  Often, boards here in the Chicago area reflect the partnerships inherent to our work and the collaborations that fuels our successes. 

    When I served on a local board of a social service and legal aid organization serving almost exclusively Spanish-speaking clients, our board meetings were held in Spanish.  Not for authenticity’s sake, and not out of a sense of exclusivity, but because the two community members serving on our board were not bilingual.  Rather than excluding those individuals or expecting them to participate within the norms of the professionals on the board, we ensured their ability to participate by meeting them where they were – in their home language.

    This is simply one example of how we work here in Chicago.  We hold doors open for one another, greet one another on the street, include everyone in the conversation, and value our neighbors and partners.  I guess that means bigger board tables, more board turnover, and a greater need for HR support.  We’re ok with that – we’re proud of it – it’s reflective of who we are.

  • kadirismail's avatar

    BY kadirismail

    ON September 20, 2011 09:15 PM

    It is a good study throwing light on wealth accumulation and transaction as a source of other set of activities such as donation-giving.
    Basically the study is sociological in nature and has brought to light the dichotomy between particularistic and universalistic modes of social functions.
    With flurry of various organizational wealth promoting activities, New york as an core area will remain teeming with wealth. And donation culture will find its place as an expression of universal personality engendered by cultural pattern obtaining in New York city.

    The idea to convert other cities after the fashion of New York will end up in truncated and wasteful initiative.

  • Never mind.. the thing I was thinking of was that those with lower income give a greater percentage of their income on average than those with higher income, not that people with higher income are not more likely to give.


    On another note, is the socioeconomic gap between board members & constituents of social service organizations a little smaller in Chicago than it would be on the East Coast?

  • Thank you for sharing this information. I look forward to learning more about the study results and findings.

  • The information on the average gift per board member interested me. I would have thought it would be much higher. As a past Executive Director and based on conversations with my peers, as a group we tend to count on (or hope for??) more than $500 - $999 annually from each board member to help fund the work of the organization.
    Do we have realistic expectations within the sector of what board members can/will/should give annually?
    Perhaps the sector needs to revisit board giving expectations based on the data. And for our organization, where board members give much much more than the average you cited, we knew we were lucky, but now I realize just how lucky!

  • BY Aaron Hurst

    ON September 28, 2011 11:59 AM

    These are some great questions and insights.  You inspired me to go back and look at some of the other data we collected.  Here are two other interesting nuggets.  Going to share them without analysis and hope that you will have further insights as you should above.

    1) DC and Chicago nonprofits percieve themselves as less innovative than those in LA, San Francisco and NYC.

    2) DC and Chicago nonprofits are more likely to adhere to a strategic plan than those in LA, San Francisco or NYC.

  • I just stumbled across this post today, so please forgive me if my comment is no longer timely…. 

    Peter Dobkin Hall, one of the preeminent historians of the nonprofit sector, has an entire chapter in his 1992 book “Inventing the Nonprofit Sector” on how different cultures of trusteeship developed in different parts of the country. He traces these differences to a variety of historical factors.

    It probably doesn’t explain the findings of this particular study, but it does show how geographic variation in board behavior is nothing new. It also suggests the explanation for the findings probably has multiple dimensions and can’t be attributed to any single cause.

    I may just be a geek, but the more I’ve learned about the history of our sector, the more convinced I’ve become of its relevance to today’s nonprofit issues.

  • I just stumbled across this post today, so please forgive me if my comment is no longer timely…. 

    Peter Dobkin Hall, one of the preeminent historians of the nonprofit sector, has an entire chapter in his 1992 book “Inventing the Nonprofit Sector” on how different cultures of trusteeship developed in different parts of the country. He traces these differences to a variety of historical factors.

    It doesn’t explain the findings of your particular study, but it does show how geographic variation in board behavior is nothing new. It also suggests the explanation for the findings probably has multiple dimensions and can’t be attributed to any single cause.

    I may just be a geek, but the more I’ve learned about the history of our sector, the more convinced I’ve become of its relevance to today’s nonprofit issues.

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