Last evening, GWU Professor Michael Worth led “Governing and Managing Nonprofit Organizations” class in discussion about the trade-offs that organizations’ leaders are faced with when building a board of directors. A classmate asked about the benefit and concerns of adding a celebrity to a nonprofit board. The general consensus was that not many celebrities will demonstrate the commitment to the organization in order to be actively engaged in and fully accountable to the fiduciary responsibilities entrusted to nonprofit board members. As this pertains to athletes, I believe that current players are susceptible to the same underwhelming commitment that is feared of many celebrities because their playing careers are simply too demanding. HOWEVER: the athlete that is driven by personal conviction and experience that will always be the best in rising to the nonprofit governance challenge, whether in the height of his or her playing career or not.
First, let’s make a distinction between the management and governance of nonprofit organizations. Management reflects the supervision and execution of mission-driven tasks that are the responsibility of the nonprofit’s executives and staff on the ground. The board is responsible for high-level oversight and is entrusted with the responsibility of securing the organization’s future through strategic planning, goal setting and fundraising, among other things.
When faced with competing interests in building a board with high visibility and potential to attract major gifts, some organizations might look to adding an athlete on their roster to help achieve these goals. However, the board is responsible for more than promotion and fundraising; in fact, some of its most important responsibilities included the oversight of budgets, the development of long-range strategic plans and critical analysis of the organization’s progress toward mission achievement and the ability to measure that progress. Nonprofit boards should consider these responsibilities in addition to goals for higher visibility and more successful capital campaigns when looking to add big name talent to their roster and ensure that their potential “draft picks” have both the capacity and willingness to carry out all of these responsibilities to the organization’s benefit.
Athletes who are still in the game are subjected to rigorous schedules for most of the year, on and off the playing field. Between practice, games, travel and other marketing engagements, it is arguable that many of them will not be able to fully commit themselves to the leadership of a nonprofit organization. And quite honestly, it isn’t fair to condemn them on their lack of commitment in this arena. An athlete’s job is to play a sport and to do so at the best of his or her ability, which means giving 100% to the team or sport and even more for personal improvement. Naturally, they cannot be expected to prioritize the governance of an organization over their playing careers. (This is also why I don’t believe it is wise for current players to charter their own personal charities, as they often do not have the experience or the time to manage them or effectively oversee those to whom they hand the reigns.) On the other hand, athletes that are phasing out of their playing careers and into (slightly) less demanding roles would, in my opinion, be better able to rise to the challenge of governing a nonprofit organization.
Of course, there are always exemplary cases of current players who have excelled on the field and in the board room; however, it is my belief that it takes strong personal conviction to keep a player running at full strength in both fields of play. The quintessential example is now-retired Warrick Dunn, a five-time Pro Bowl running back — one of only six backs in the history of football to top 500 receptions for more than 10,000 yards — and recipient of a 2011 Jefferson Award, one of the nation’s top honors for philanthropic engagement and community service. His service to the community began during his rookie season in 1997 when he started the Homes for the Holidays program, an initiative to grant home ownership to single mothers, a dream Warrick’s own mother was not able to realize. During his final seasons with Tampa Bay, Warrick Dunn partnered with 11 other athletes to found Athletes for Hope, an organization “that brings athletes together to educate, inspire and empower them to channel their energy for a common goal: to make a difference in the world.” To date, Warrick Dunn Charities’ Homes for the Holidays program has impacted the lives of 117 single parents and 311 children and dependents, and he continues to be a strong and vital leader in the Athletes for Hope mission.
It is not the typical case that athletes are just as committed to their charitable endeavors as they are to their sport, but when an athlete has a life experience as compelling as Warrick Dunn’s (and some others!) that drives him or her to achieve at the highest levels on and off the field, nonprofit leaders can be confident that their personal conviction will command the sense of ownership and spark the personal engagement that is required for effective nonprofit organization governance.