In Conversation with Dona Young and Carolyn Miles
The differences between nonprofit and corporate governance are few and far between when the nonprofit in question has a budget of almost $700 million and operations in more than 120 different countries. But when you are a nonprofit of this size, what should the board’s expectations of management be—and vice versa? Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children, and Dona Young, who is a director on the Save the Children board, spoke with NACD Senior Advisor Jeffrey M. Cunningham about how directors can navigate the perils and opportunities of operating around the globe while fostering a top-notch organizational culture.
One of the problems of working in the nonprofit space is controversial topics—for example, immigration, an issue that came to a head with the recent influx of children crossing the U.S. border. For Miles, Save the Children didn’t adopt the attitude of choosing sides, but rather, they chose children. With that mindset, the organization was able to push beyond the immigration debate and focus on the issue of taking care of kids and ensuring their basic human rights. It’s a position that drew criticism but doing otherwise would have been a disservice to the company’s mission.
Both Miles and Young drove home the importance of bringing into the boardroom what’s going on in the field. Young emphasized the need of having a CEO who is continuously communicative with the board. Miles explained a practice she has used of bringing people who are working in the field to attend boardroom meetings and explain their needs to directors. Those lines of communication better inform the board and is a boon to helping the board helping the company accomplish its mission.
Miles also explained how Save the Children’s directors venture out to experience the work that their organization is doing, what she believes is a critical practice. Save the Children’s directors have been to the places that are the toughest—Afghanistan, Liberia, and Iraq. On a recent trip to Liberia, Miles was confronted with about 4,000 cases of Ebola in Liberia, which has created about 2,000 orphans. As a result, Save the Children wanted to consider sending aid, even though the issue at hand was out of the company’s traditional scope.
“We vet the issues together as a board,” Young said. “At the core of our mission, we have to assume risk.” She offered the following process of evaluating resources to ensure that the company can address a certain area of risk.
- Identify each component of that risk.
- Identify how each component is to be addressed.
- Evaluate if the board has the skill sets to attack the issue at hand.
These are tactics that are as relevant for Save the Children as they are for a company such as IBM. Although the traditional scope of Save the Children’s activity did not lie within epidemic disease control, they did, however, know a lot of the pieces of how to assist (e.g., setting up hospital), and the company was able to respond to the Ebola crisis in the ways that it could and in a fashion that was true to its core mission.
Miles also discussed the importance of metrics. From her perspective, it is critical for nonprofits to focus on metrics and not just the “greater good of the cause.” If a company is able to produce palpable results, people who bankroll the organization look to their contributions not as a donation, but as an investment. Young added the importance of the board’s role as a steward of those funds, and the need for discipline and process—if that is not in place, there’s no way company is achieving its goals.