Wall Street's latest takeover: Charity boards

Financiers and Wall Streeters like to tout their charitable giving. From the Robin Hood Foundation to the Goldman Sachs' charitable ventures, the titans of finance represent one of the most potent forces in philanthropy and give away billions every year.

Yet a new study says financiers may be growing too dominant in the nonprofit world, bringing values and priorities that may not be in the best interests of charity.

The paper, "The Wall Street Takeover of Nonprofit Boards," by Garry W. Jenkins at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, found that the percentage of nonprofit board members in the study who come from finance has doubled since 1989. They hold an even larger percentage of leadership positions on nonprofit boards. (Tweet This)

At liberal arts colleges and New York City nonprofits, financiers hold 44 percent of board leadership positions and 56 percent of leadership positions at private universities, both up dramatically since 1989, according to Jenkins, is a former chief operating officer of the Goldman Sachs Foundation.

A general view of atmosphere at the Robin Hood Foundation's 2015 Benefit at the Jacob Javits Center on May 12, 2015, in New York City.
Kevin Mazur | Getty Images
A general view of atmosphere at the Robin Hood Foundation's 2015 Benefit at the Jacob Javits Center on May 12, 2015, in New York City.

While nonprofit boards have long been filled with the rich, the report said, "What's new is the increased concentration of directors drawn from one narrow sector of business and industry: finance."

That concentration has changed the face and values of nonprofits, according to the report.

"Practices such as data-driven decision-making, an emphasis on metrics, prioritizing impact and competition, managing with three- to five-year horizons and plans, and advocating executive-style leadership and compensation have all become an essential part of the nonprofit lexicon," the report said.

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Put simply, Wall Streeters are running nonprofits more like Wall Street, aiming for greater returns on their charitable dollars.

While this discipline is often beneficial, it can also become a "pathology" that can "distort" and "dilute" the purpose of charity, the report said. Applying market measures to charity can sacrifice long-term programs for short-term targets and create a "false promise" that complex social problems like poverty can be solved with metrics and quarterly targets.

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Filling boards with Wall Streeters also crowds out representatives of other racial, economic and educational backgrounds who better represent broader society, which can lead to group think and an "uncritical adoption of financial concepts approaches and values," it continued.

The study said nonprofits need to mitigate this "Wall Street takeover" by appointing more diverse board members to balance the finance types.

"For those who do not believe the status quo presents a problem, a reasonable question to consider is this: Where is the reasonable line? If 40 percent from the finance industry is acceptable, what about 50 percent? Sixty percent? Is there a tipping point?" it said.

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To be sure, charities need money to survive. And if Wall Streeters are giving the money, they should also be able to help direct how its spent. Nonprofits no doubt benefit from thinking more about efficiency, effectiveness, accountability, data and measurement.

Yet as the study makes clear, simply "following the money" may not be the best long-term strategy for today's most important charities.