Thursday, July 15, 2010

Should US Nonprofits Adopt a Patron System?

I worked recently in Singapore. While I found many similarities in the ways nonprofits do business both there and here in the United States, I found differences as well. One of the biggest was their use of a patron system. Besides having what we would consider the familiar board structure with a chairman or president at the helm, a large number of organizations there also have a patron. Some even have a patron and a patron in chief. These are powerful individuals who wield tremendous influence. For instance, the patron in chief of Singapore’s Lyric Opera is the President of the Republic of Singapore. Its patron is the Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defense. The intent is that these individuals will provide support – including, in many cases, political clout – and encourage others to support the organization as well.

In the United States, our honorary boards could be considered the closest equivalent to the patron system of Singapore. Some organizations here are able to engage major players, such as the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation which counts among its trustees James Baker, Dick Cheney, Alan Greenspan, Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld. But the number of organizations with the capability of attracting names of this caliber are far and few between. Would it be easier for nonprofits to attract a single patron? Would a patron help nonprofits that feel they lack sufficient access to affluence and influence?

I do believe that it would be easier to find a single patron than an honorary board. However, I do not believe that it would necessarily be easy. Think of all the nonprofits that have tried unsuccessfully to find a celebrity spokesperson. And, we certainly know how quickly a good name can become a liability. Tiger Woods, anyone? Singapore has experienced this with the patron system as well. The patron of their National Kidney Foundation, the wife of Goh Chok Tong, former Prime Minister of Singapore and current Chairman of the Central Bank, was forced to step down after defending the pay of the CEO, saying that his $600,000 (S) salary was “peanuts.” At least with an honorary board, one would hope there will be others whose reputations remain sterling, even if one of the names on that board turns bad.

As to whether having a patron would be helpful to organizations lacking affluence and influence...I'm not so sure. Singapore is a very small country. People tend to know one another and a patron's name alone carries clout. Here, the individual would have to be willing to actively use his/her influence on behalf of the organization to bring others along. Research done by Herman and Renz suggests that this does not happen as often as nonprofits hope. Besides, the reach of a single individual versus a larger group is necessarily limited, especially in a country the size of the United States.

So, even though I believe nonprofits in the United States can learn much from their counterparts in other countries, I'm not so sure I'd suggest our turning to a patron system here. But, I’m curious as to what others think. Is such a system an answer for us, especially in these difficult times?

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