TheView From Outside:

Reflections On The Management Of ISKCON

Sefton Davies

In this article, Sefton Davies gives an interesting and valuableinsight into the nature and management of organisations, and raisessome important questions regarding the management of ISKCON.

The nature of organisations

All organisations, whether commercial, political, social, educationalor religious, share common structural and procedural characteristicssince they all have a common purpose - the achievement of a desiredtask through the management of available human and material resources.�It is therefore essential that an effective organsation should havea clear sense of its desired direction, a set of procedures whichwill enable it to arrive at its destination and a team of memberswho are competent� to implement them.� A model for such an effectiveframework is illustrated in the following diagram:

The diagram shows that success depends initially on a clear vision(often called a mission) which is shared by all its members. Thatis, what the organisation stands for (its values) and what it wishesto achieve (its objectives).� All members of the organisation needto know and support the mission and to keep it constantly in mind,since everything the organisation does needs to be congruent withit - every action of every member must contribute to its realisation.However, the vision must also embrace the idea of how such an idealwill be achieved. Commercial organisations have little difficultyin defining their mission, which is usually to provide a quality productwhich will sell and so realise a profit for their shareholders throughsuccessful marketing, but religious organisations often have greaterdifficulty. Defining values is usually relatively easy for them, butenvisioning practical outcomes can be much harder.

A mission is by its nature vague, because it encapsulates a rangeof values and aspirations in a relatively brief statement.� Therefore,it needs to be translated into concrete, realisable outcomes ifit is to be achieved, and the outcomes must be given to its membersthrough the process of delegation.� Outcomes need to be expressedin terms which are capable of evaluation, so that the success ofthe organisation can be assessed.� Each member needs to know howthey can contribute to the mission and should therefore have responsibilityfor the achievement of a specific set of outcomes. They also needto know what other members are responsible for in order that effortis not duplicated and to ensure there is clear accountability.�A means of ensuring successful outcomes is to define the key areasof activity required to achieve an goal and the critical tasks whichhave to be completed to cover each area. Again, a commercial organisationhas little difficulty here, and typical outcomes will be maximisationof shareholder dividends, minimisation of operating costs, investmentin development etc., with employees having clearly defined (in termsof critical tasks) roles in achieving these; there are, therefore,finance managers, marketing managers, personnel directors, etc.,who are qualified and trained to execute their roles, and theirinter-relationships are usually clearly defined in an organisationalstructure.

In order that all parts of the work are co-ordinated there needsto be clear communication and a defined system of authority; thatis, a delegation of power to managers who are responsible for supportingmembers in their efforts, and for making decisions which will leadto the realisation of the mission. To do this, they need to havea means of appraising members' performance to ensure they are competentto execute their responsibilities; to train them if they are not,and to ensure they have the appropriate resources to fulfil theirobligations.� They also need to have the ability to make wise decisionswhen determining organisational policy and solving organisationalproblems. Effective organisations devote much time and resourcesin ensuring their managers are qualified to lead, and in providingthem with the expertise needed in their specific fields.

If an organisation has developed procedures in line with thismodel, it will be possible to measure its success by evaluatingthe degree to which its outcomes have been achieved and by identifyingany parts and processes which have been less than successful; itis then possible to take corrective measures to ensure that futureeffort will lead to the achievement of the mission, thus leadingto constant monitoring effectiveness.

ISKCON management

The model outlined above is applicable to any organisation, nomatter what its size or purpose, and it might be of value to ISKCONmembers to analyse their own management in relation to it.� SinceI am not qualified to comment in detail of ISKCON's management processes,I have attempted to focus on them through a series of questionswhich the reader may wish to consider:

The vision and outcomes

I have worked with members of ISKCON who did not have a clearand practical sense of their purpose, beyond the implementationof spiritual practices. These practices are, of course, the coreof the organisation's reason for existence, and must be centralto any organisational vision, but there are also very practicaland more mundane needs which have to be fulfilled if the missionis to be achieved; for example, the means to acquire the financialand material resources needed to sustain itself, and the harmoniousinteraction between its members so as to maximise their effectivenessin pursuing the vision; the provision of a communication systemwhich will enable members to support and inform each other; andthe structures to ensure optimum use of the talents and energy ofits members.� All of these things need to be part of the organisationalmission, if it is to be a successful and self-sustaining movement.

Although there is often an intuitive sense of what needs to bedone, do ISKCON members at all levels have a clearly defined andarticulated startement of its desired outcomes and the means toachieve them?� It is clearly not for me to attempt this, but I wouldsuggest that such a statement should articulate who will benefitfrom successful implementation, what will be achieved and some outlineindication of how it will be implemented.� An example of a statementfrom a typical institution, with which I am very familiar, mightthen be along these lines:

Within a dynamic development plan and a framework of sound financialand resource management, to provide students with the opportunityto follow high quality courses appropriate to their individualneeds.

Such a statement contains within it the elements of the desiredoutcomes (to provide a curriculum which is relevant to the needsof students and cognisant of changing social and economic conditions)and points to the key areas of activity needed to achieve it (soundmanagement of finances and resources, realistic curriculum developmentand effective teaching). It also clearly states that the organisationexists essentially for the benefit of students, not of the staffor any vested interests.

Is there an equivalent comprehensive mission statement for ISKCON?�It is not for me to attempt one, but I do perceive some difficultiesif I were to try, since my experience of organisations is limitedto those which have a clearly defined output.� A factory has anend-product (a car or can of beans); schools have leavers; hospitalshave cured patients - what is the output of ISKCON? Is it an organisationwhich serves only its own members, in which case it resembles aclub, or does it have aims related to community, as do most otherorganisations?� If so, what external community do they serve? Isthere a distinction in organisational terms between temple membersand community members, and what should be their relationship interms of the mission?� These questions may well derive from my ownignorance of Hare Krishna philosophy and procedures but they arealso questions others outside the organisation may ask and consideringthem now may help the movement to clarify its management purposesand procedures.

Role definition and delegation

Role definition and delegation are critical to effectivement managementand are sometimes ill-defined.� Work is certainly shared out butthere is sometimes no clear indication of responsibility, accountabilityand authority, [1] with resulting role-confusion and role-overlap or with low motivationbecause of insufficient opportunity to contribute to organisationaldevelopment. To be fully effective, each organisational unit (temple)needs to decide, preferably through fully participative discussion,how the talents and experience of members will be used for the benefitof the community.� The key activity areas can then be distributedto appropriate members through negotiated job descriptions thatclearly define their responsibilities, authority and accountability.�Questions then arise about the authority to make these decisions,and there is often an unwillingness to accept the power necessaryto implement them. At a recent workshop in Belgium, I often hearddevotees suggest that the acceptance of such power conflicted withthe need for personal humility.� There appears to be a dilemma herewhich needs to be addressed.

It is my understanding that, at an international level, role definitionis somewhat ad hoc in that there are no apparent criteria for allocatingresponsibility for overseeing� new countries to GBC members. Isthere a need, therefore, for a review of the present allocationof responsibilities in order to provide a more rational and centralisedsystem of support for regions and their temples?� Are there clearlyestablished criteria regarding the attributes needed by senior managers,well-established procedures for their selection, and clarificationof the status and authority of managers at all levels?� It appearsthat high authority is currently awarded on the basis of spirituality,so that sannyasis hold the highest position within the movement.Does this provide it with the high levels of managerial competenceand creativity needed in any effective organisation?

Troubleshooting If the results obtained as a result of a well-definedmission and good devolution of authority are less than perfect (whichthey usually are), identification of the causes is necessary in orderto take the corrective action which may be applicable to managementprocesses and / or personnel.Management processes Management processes need to ensure that themission is achieved with maximum effectiveness and minimum effort.This can be achieved only if the desired outcomes are the rightones to realise the mission, if the management structures and proceduresare efficient and effective, and if the organisation is able torespond to changing circumstances or crises.� Of these, I am familiaronly with the management procedures, and will therefore confinemy remarks to this issue.


  • ISKCON is managed by the GBC, which is the ultimate managementauthority and as such establishes policy and procedures for themovement worldwide; it also oversees the implementation of itspolicies in each of the zones. The GBC is a self-selecting bodyand the majority of its members are spiritual leaders, yet itsfunction is to provide both spiritual leadership and effectiveorganisational management. It provides 'top-down' management throughedicts and advice, but, because it is self-selecting rather thanrepresentative, cannot guarantee feedback on its operations.
  • The GBC is the secretariat for the ISKCON zones and operatesthrough a variety of regional and national organisations. Thereis no uniform system, and there are no criteria for establishingone.
  • The temple is the smallest unit of management, but there isno standard management system within them; all have a temple president,but their powers and mode of operation are not defined, and thereare great variations. Some temples have councils, but there areno fixed criteria for membership, nor are there standard proceduresfor selection or defined management responsibilities.
  • In addition, there exist larger communities of devotees whichmay or may not have strong relationships with the temple, so thatthe management of their needs is not defined or monitored.

Such a management process raises, for an objective onlooker, seriousquestions about its capability for effectiveness:

  • Is your organisational structure the best one for respondingto changing social, political and economic circumstances? Onefeature of failing organisations is a belief that they do notneed to change. Is there need periodically to review practiceto ensure that it is the optimum for realising your mission? Isthere a need to establish the machinery for doing this? Is therea recognition that the movement may need to adapt to local cultureand need, and that local variations in codes of practice may thereforebe desirable?
  • Does a self-selecting senior management body have the bestopportunity to develop the links with the membership which characterisethe most successful organisations? Would a more representativebody be better able to benefit from the enthusiasm and creativityof its members? Does self-selection diminish accountability tothe movement at large? Can a self-selecting body guarantee theflexibility needed to be able to respond promptly to changinggeographical, political and social changes?
  • Is the GBC's dual role of spiritual leadership and corporatemanagement the most effective way to provide competent organisationof finance, resources, administration and personnel? Would itbe better to have two senior committees, one providing the necessaryinterpretation and dissemination of religious belief and practice,the other providing a dynamic and practical management supportsystem for the regional bodies? Could not two such bodies be interconnected,so that the spiritual leadership exercised an oversight of managementto ensure that religious values were not prejudiced, in mannersimilar to the upper house of many state governmental organisationssuch as the British House of Lords? In this way, would it notbe possible to leave executive decisions to qualified managers,so long as they did not offend tenets of faith?
  • Should there be uniform practice in managing regional and localcommunities? Should the GBC publish a reference guide to the managementof temples which achieves this, while allowing for regional culturaland political differences? Should the local community have morevoice in managing local ISKCON affairs? Is there virtue in makingthe community, rather than the temple members, the governing agencyfor local groups, so that the temple council has responsibilityfor devotional aspects and for managing the day-to-day runningof the temple, while a community council has responsibility formanaging the financial, social and political affairs of the largerISKCON community?
  • What steps can be taken to make the management process moreefficient in terms of decision-making? Can meetings be made moreeconomical in their proceedings and more purposeful in their outcomes?Can technology be used to speed communication between the majordecision-making authorities and local groups, thus providing atwo-way management process?

The answers to such questions can come only from discussion withinthe Hare Krishna community itself and might need, therefore, a processof local debate with all groups using an agreed common agenda. Theoutcomes of such meetings could then be fed into regional convocations,from which representatives could attend an international conference.Not an easy task, but the Belgian conference I recently attended providesa model, if its agenda and procedures were suitably amended.

Personnel management

Management processes are only as effective as the people who implementthem, and organisations need to closely monitor the performanceof their personnel, so that they can receive the support and guidanceneeded to maintain their efficiency. There is, therefore, a needfor systems which can evaluate performance and provide the trainingneeded to maintain it at acceptable levels.�

Pertinent comments might, therefore, be:

  • Members who hold office are entitled to constructive feedbackon the performance of their responsibilities, so that they mayderive satisfaction for work well done and obtain constructivesuggestions on how to improve. This can only be done effectivelyif there is some means of reviewing their performance, and someform appraisal or performance review is therefore desirable. Sucha process needs careful consideration and planning, and appraisersneed training if it is to be effective.
  • Appraisal can only be meaningful if responsibilities are clearlydefined, and precise job-descriptions are needed.
  • Where officers are not performing as required, or to theirfull potential, training is required, and ISKCON needs to establishorderly procedures for this. Ideally, there should be trainingcentres on a regional basis with properly trained staff who canrun centralised courses or offer them at local centres and temples.
  • Training can be part of a more general educational provision,and my experience of working with devotees at a substantial workshopon this theme causes me to urge serious consideration of moreinteresting methods than are often used. My belief is that thereis too much rote-learning and unquestioning knowledge transmission,rather than student-centred learning. I realise that there arecreditable efforts being made in some centres to improve on currentprocedures, and it might be possible in a future edition of thisjournal to examine such processes. It would also, I believe, bebeneficial to give more authority to trained teachers among themembership, rather than relying on admittedly enthusiastic, butnevertheless inexpert, amateurs.
  • People can only achieve the possible. This implies realisticallyframed desired outcomes, the development of competence througheducation and training, and the minimum resources needed for success.Are all ISKCON efforts capable of realistic achievement? Do somesmaller temples attempt extremely demanding or impossible tasks,such as service to the Deities beyond the reasonable capacityof available members? Is there a need for an equitable distributionof resources, so that small communities have the minimum resourcesneeded for survival / success? Could there be, perhaps, a 'tithe'which is centrally collected by the GBC and disbursed accordingto need?

Conclusion I have attempted, within my limited knowledge, to applymanagement theory to the organisational processes of ISKCON, and toraise issues which the movement might wish to consider and possiblyact upon. Solutions to some of the problems implicit in these issueswill not be easily - and certainly not quickly - found or implemented;however, I firmly believe there is a need, particularly at such asauspicious time as ISKCON's forthcoming centenary celebrations, totake stock of what has been achieved, and what needs to be done toconsolidate and further the work initiated by Srila Prabhupada.


[1] For clarificationof my definition of these terms, readers are referred to my articleon delegation (ISKCON Communications Journal, Issue No.4, July-December 1994).� It is important that the terms are properlyunderstood if misunderstanding is to be avoided.