Ownership – Are We Sure That’s What We Want?

Perhaps because home ownership or business ownership (with all their challenges) remain a vibrant part of the great American dream, we who serve the nonprofit sector are always hearing about (and more than occasionally invoking) the principle of ownership in our world as well. This is ironic, in part because ownership is the defining criterion separating for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations.

In our universe, we tend to use the term “ownership” metaphorically. We speak about taking ownership of the organization, or owning a particular project. We exhort our volunteer boards to act like the “owners” good governance requires them to be. When used in this context, “ownership” becomes synonymous with proprietorship. When we urge young colleagues to own their efforts we are telling them to be responsible for their decisions and accountable for their work.

If we are being honest, however, ownership – at least in these contexts – has a darker side. Ownership is often the preeminent pretext for avoiding collaboration. “I’d love to work with other members of the team, but this is my project and I need to own it through to completion.” Variations on the same theme include: “My boss expects me to own this and she’d be disappointed if I did anything else.” Or, “The best way for me to advance in this organization is to own this effort from start to finish.”

This distorted approach to ownership becomes more problematic the higher up the organizational chart we go. Board members and philanthropists often misunderstand their status as fiduciaries, believing that they are the exclusive owners of the enterprise. So-called founders and more recently social innovators have conflated their status as visionaries and original funders with institutional ownership. In these instances, professionals are dismissed as the hired help, required to serve at the beck and call of their volunteer board members.

At the executive level, this misleading view of ownership can be equally as invidious. Having been told over the years that their leadership is invaluable to the future of the enterprise, long-serving CEOs begin to believe their public relations. The cumulative impact of this “ownership” often results in a hesitancy, at best, or an unwillingness, at worst, to contemplate the future of the organization without them. So deeply ingrained is the ownership concept that the very idea of another executive assuming the helm becomes anathema.

When the notion of “ownership” militates against the possibility of partnership then something has gone very wrong. Of course, we want all those involved in the nonprofit arena – volunteer and professional – to behave responsibly. The myth that those who serve not-for-profit groups are somehow less dedicated or less invested in future outcomes must be debunked by the actions of all who serve the greater good. But when a sense of ownership turns out to be justification for monopolistic behavior or when “owning” a project forestalls the possibility of shared power and collaboration we have allowed the metaphor to become reality.

We can take responsibility for our work without falling into the trap of believing that we alone are in charge. We can be accountable for our actions and dedicated to our organization without ignoring the valuable input we get from others. Surrounding ourselves by people who know more than we do is not a diminution of our “ownership.” Our ability to share power, to grow the leadership of others and to learn from those around us is what makes us great leaders.

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