In 1997, the Kettering Foundation commissioned The Harwood Group to write a major study on the relationship between boards of directors and the public. The study was based on interviews with 75 board presidents from across the United States, distributed evenly among public school boards, local pass-through organizations such as the United Way, and community foundations and civic organizations. A major finding of the original study was that board members' responses to challenges of their public credibility might actually worsen their situation. The Harwood research raises two basic questions:
1. Does this board mind-set vary among nonprofit industries?
2. Are nonprofit organizations that do not define their primary mission as civic more able, paradoxically, to develop deeper understanding of their communities and ties to the public than civic specialists such as pass-throughs, community foundations, and civic organizations?
In response to these questions we undertook an informal ethnographic study to either reinforce the Harwood findings or to point to a particular industry or industries deserving of more extensive research. Interviews with members of 15 nonprofit boards: seven human service organizations focused on families and youth, four arts organizations, and four international nongovernmental organizations focused on both public accountability and the relationship of boards to the larger public beyond constituencies.