I am not sure if you know the Post Turtle story. The story is about this old farmer who was driving by a fence line and saw a turtle on top of a fence post. He says to himself, “He didn’t get there by himself, he doesn’t belong there, he doesn’t know what to do while he’s up there, so which stupid clown put him up there in the first place?”
The Masjid is perhaps the most important component of any Muslim community and how it is run has a big impact on the ability of the community to remain cohesive, active, and productive. In America this is particularly complex because there is so much cultural and ethnic diversity. However, when you look at Masjid Board Members, you are left wondering if one or more are really Post Turtles. Given the challenges posed by a culture that is so far removed from Islam and so influential, the need for Board Members who are visionary, inspirational, knowledgeable, influential, and dedicated is even more essential. People who bring some key ingredient to the table. Not just well-meaning, hard-working, enthusiastic people, who though they may be very lovable are not competent for the job at hand. Enthusiasm is not a substitute for knowledge or experience.
Having served on corporate Boards, I am familiar with the selection process for Board members. Barring the exception of family businesses where the strategic importance or equity holding of a family member is a reason for him/her being on the Board, in all public companies, people are invited to serve on Boards of Directors based on their personal career track record, the prestige of their names, their specialist knowledge and network connections. There is not a single instance to the best of my knowledge where a Board member landed there because he/she had been elected by, well, who? And on what basis? Like the Post Turtle. What is a qualification to serve on a Masjid Board? Seriously, can someone answer this for me?
Let me share my own thoughts about this from my 40 years consulting experience with commercial, non-profit, religious (not only Islamic), activist, government, and educational organizations on three continents. I have interviewed many potential senior leaders for different multinational companies and have written the book, ‘Hiring Winners’.
We talk of the 3 W’s – Work, Wealth, Wisdom when recruiting Board Members for non-profits. Work experience in areas that are important to the running of the Masjid. Personal wealth and the willingness to make significant donations to the Masjid as well as a powerful network of wealthy friends and relatives who are willing to donate. And wisdom, the fruit of years of relevant experience especially in dealing with diverse people.
Board membership is neither a reward nor a perquisite. Nor is it the result of a popularity contest. A Board Member must fulfill a specific need and so education and experience must be the qualifier and not popularity with the masses. This is the problem with our political system in society as well, where people get elected to run the government based on their popularity with the masses. But governing needs vision, strategy, a high level of skill and experience. They have no idea how to govern and no experience in governance and we end up with Post Turtles.
The same thing happens in Masjid Boards. The Masjid is a critical facility meant for the benefit of the whole community. Those who run it, its Board Members, need specific abilities and skills. Being popular is not one of them. That is how we have people on Masjid Boards who have no experience of running an organization, no idea about how to do it, and they can’t even be trained because they don’t have the technical education necessary to learn management skills.
The primary role of the Board Member is that of strategic planning and overseeing. Not of hands-on micromanaging or execution. The tendency to do that is a warning sign that the incumbent is unsuited for a Board position. The second quality is a thirst for knowledge and the eagerness to learn. Asking questions about what books they are reading currently helps to put your finger on whether a person is likely to be a good fit on the Board. Anyone who doesn’t read regularly is unlikely to succeed on the Board.
Given the diversity in the community almost anywhere in the United States and Canada, I would rate comfort in working with people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and both genders, high in being suitable to serve on the Board. A very important skill would be the ability to communicate across cultures, races, backgrounds, and religions and act as an ambassador not only for the Masjid but Islam and Muslims. Comfort and facility in working with Interfaith groups, presenting Islam to non-Muslims in a pleasant, confident, and understandable manner would certainly be a big plus point.
In summary Board Members must be strongly practicing Muslims with an openness of mind and heart and a passion to serve the community. They must be willing to spend their own wealth as well as access their network to support the Masjid and its programs. Skin in the game is an important criterion for being a Board Member. They must understand the role of the Board which is not that of doorman, cook, and gardener rolled into one. They must be strategic planners and advisors overseeing the operation, understanding that to be their most effective contribution. They must not get involved in ‘manual labor’, which seems to be the culture in some Masajid where anyone who doesn’t shovel the snow and rake the leaves is seen as somehow less of a Muslim. Experience of working with other non-profit organizations would be a definite advantage. Board Members must have excellent communication and conflict resolution skills which are critical in keeping the community cohesive and together and motivating others to participate in community building activities.
The Masjid Board, like a corporate board, adds prestige to the organization and is the face of the community. Who is on it, makes a huge difference. Who is not on it, makes an even bigger one. Choosing members for the Board because they are of this or that ethnicity or gender is a disservice and a means of reinforcing prejudice and discrimination. Board Members must be chosen based on professional suitability and must have the sagacity and wisdom to take the whole community with them. And take the turtle off the post.