TRUSTEE – OBLIGATIONS & OPPORTUNITIES, PART I. . .

Greenleaf writes: I would like to turn to a consideration of the meaning of the term ‘trust.’  What are one’s obligations and the opportunities when, as a trustee, one holds an institution in trust?

…Put simply…the trustee obligation is fiduciary – it is to stand as the evident symbol of trust to all who may depend upon the institution in any way, whether as employee, client, supplier, investor, creditor, or whatever.  …All who are served by an institution need to see the trustees as sufficiently strong, informed, and diligent to assure the institution’s trustworthiness. 

A few definitions might help us.

Trust = reliance on the integrity of a person.

Obligation = a binding promise

Fiduciary = a person to whom power is entrusted for the benefit another; it is rooted in the nature of trust and confidence.

Trustworthy = deserving trust or confidence

In 1984 I became deeply involved in and concerned about trusteeship.  I have had the privilege to serve on a number of not-for-profit boards and for-profit boards and I have had the privilege of helping both for-profit and not-for-profit boards as a thought-partner.  A number of these boards of trustees have functioned with a high level of distinction; they literally lived into and out of the definitions above.  These high performing boards of trustees also ensured that potential trustees would receive the development necessary in order for them to live into and out of the definitions listed above.

Trustees were chosen because they were trustworthy and because they were committed to building and sustaining and when necessary to rebuilding trust.  They freely entered into a ‘binding promise’ to hold the institution in trust.  They embraced their obligation of being a fiduciary.  They lived their ‘role’ in a way that engendered trust in all of the stakeholders.  They were living ‘symbols of trust.’ 

I also directly experienced boards of trustees that did not live into and out of the definitions listed above.  A number of members were recruited because of their ‘name’ or because of their ‘resources’ or because they had access to ‘resources.’  Others sought to become board members because it would look good on their resume.  They were, in two words, primarily ‘self-serving’ rather than being primarily ‘other-serving.’  As a whole they were not ‘informed’ – they relied on the CEO or ED or President and his/her staff to be ‘informed.’  As a result they ‘accepted’ what was offered with little challenge.  They did not ‘assure’ that the institution was ‘trustworthy.’  Too often these boards were large – that is there were 20, 30, or even 40 board members.  It is nearly impossible for a large board to truly function rooted in informed-consensus; more often than not the members as a whole would ‘rubber-stamp’ whatever the Executive Committee of the board or the CEO, ED and/or President would present.  Given this, how could they be living ‘symbols’ of trust

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