Downton Abbey and Nonprofit Boards
Downton Abbey, the much-watched British drama, offered a plot point of interest to nonprofit leaders: Waves are made with an out-of-the-box choice to head a committee to erect a World War I memorial. What’s the takeaway?
It really does matter who chairs the committee.
“I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on. Everything I believe in will be tested and held up for ridicule.”
Mr. Carson, the butler, uttered these words in the premier episode of Downton Abbey’s fifth season, which aired Sunday night on PBS stations across the country. For anyone who has been living under a rock for the past five years – or somehow missed the pre-season hype over the past week – Downton is the most popular show in the history of Masterpiece Theater. Both a melodramatic soap opera and an incisive look at the history of early 20th century Britain, the show follows the fates of the aristocratic Grantham family and the servants who keep their country estate running.
And while a popular television show set in another era may not reflect “the real world,” there are some lessons to ponder for today’s American fundraising enterprises and the inner workings of nonprofit boards.
Carson (played by Jim Carter) not only runs the staff, he is the self-appointed upholder of tradition and propriety of the estate. The moral order of this universe seems momentarily rocked when Carson, and not his employer, the Earl of Grantham, is asked to chair a committee to erect a World War I (or the Great War, as it would have been called in 1924) memorial. Such an esteemed philanthropic and public position typically went to members of noble families, not servants. We are told that Lord Grantham already serves on dozens of committees. This episode provides a key lesson to nonprofit boards today.
But first, a little digression: Philanthropy is an integral component of American and British society. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll find that film and television plots touch on issues related to philanthropy on a surprisingly regular basis. For example, the inaugural season of the Netflix drama House of Cards included an episode about a library naming gift from Frank Underwood, the fictional, Machiavellian congressman. From its outset, philanthropy has served in the backdrop of the Downton universe. The Grantham family members express a noblesse oblige to sit on committees and help the poor – without breaking too much of a sweat. In the show’s second season, everything is temporarily turned upside down with the outbreak of World War I. For a time, the family puts their lives on hold to contribute to the public good. During the war years, Downton Abbey is transformed into a convalescent home for recovering soldiers. The show reinforces the extent to which the structure of American philanthropy is descended from the British system. Want another example? Go dust off – or download – a copy of George Elliott’s “Middlemarch,” perhaps the best novel ever written in the English language. In the novel, a great many pages are devoted to a battle for the control of the board of trustees of a charitable hospital in a small English hamlet.
The Downton Abbey season five premier is set in 1924, when the first Labor government is formed. New ideas are fomenting about power and the rights and responsibilities of ordinary citizens. Carson is asked to join the committee, we are told, because he is such a respected figure in the village, who may not have served in the war but knew well those who did. Both Carson and his employer seem to grasp the gravity of the role reversal. Carson only accepts once he has his lord’s approval, and even then, he only agrees to lead once he exacts a concession by the board to grant the Earl the ambiguous title of “patron.” By understanding optics, politics, and the needs of others so well, Carson should indeed make an ideal campaign chair.
The point nonprofit leaders can take from this fictional episode is this: It matters who you choose to chair a campaign or lead a board. Big names carry weight and communicate values about the larger organization and process. But sometimes it makes sense to pick someone with a finger on the pulse of the community. Either way, volunteer leadership positions involve navigating political, social, and cultural factors. Keep those factors in mind when choosing your leaders, for such a choice may indeed amount to a “shaking of the ground.”
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