Fatally Incurious Governance a Kind of Nonprofit Malfeasance

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A good friend of mine says “don’t just do something, stand there” to admonish the people she is training in the art of facilitation to use your own inviting silence as a way to set the table for others to speak and for yourself to listen.

It’s great advice for those of us who are used to advocating and taking action as a way of being. Sometimes, that very din of activity shuts out information that you need, energy that could help, and ideas that would inspire and redirect the work in ways reflective of this sector’s roots in associational activity.

I have been struck again and again, and again just recently, that it’s excruciatingly common not to listen and understand the stakeholder environment around your organization. There is an ownership issue here that speaks to the very nature of nonprofits—which are, in fact, organized for public benefit. So what happens when the public and the board violently disagree about what constitutes the way forward?

More and more, we see the public calling out nonprofit boards for decisions they have already made that appear at odds with what the stakeholders want. So it is at Sweet Briar College, the latest example of a board making a sudden decision to close only to find that they will be challenged legally, financially, and reputationally on that decision by the very people for whom they were acting in stewardship.

This lack of active connection to the base of supporters should be deemed a kind of nonprofit malfeasance, in violation of what we are organized to do.

Let me be clear, I have no argument with closing a nonprofit if there is good reason for it, even if it hurts. But I do have a problem with taking such actions in a well-padded and sound-insulated boardroom. These past few years have brought us many such revolts against high-handed governance actions—the San Diego OperaSusan G. Komen for the Cure and even the for-profit grocery chain, Market Basket.

Maybe it is a function of board members being largely older and perhaps a bit out of touch, but here is the deal: The digital age has ushered in a new era of organizing where stakeholder groups can more quickly organize across type—in Sweet Briar’s case, across student, alumni, faculty, and donor groups. Getting at cross-purposes through a lack of listening is just plain incompetence. How are your listening skills?

We’d love articles on this topic from you! Let us know if you are interested.

  • Kelly Gardner Headd

    Thank you, Ms. McCambridge for your succinct and utterly on-point observation and analysis. As a graduate of Sweet Briar College and a supporter of the #savesweetbriar movement, your use of the situation now playing out at our school as an example of “nonprofit malfeasance” is much appreciated. Clearly, Sweet Briar’s president and board have been at best inexcusably tone-deaf to the deep regard our students, alumnae, faculty, staff and other supporters have for this magnificent institution and our capacity to rise as one body to protect our school. Sweet Briar’s board is now learning the grave and humiliating outcomes that await nonprofit boards that do not fulfill their fiduciary duties and engage in what you so fittingly term “nonprofit malfeasance”.

  • Stacey Sickels Locke

    Thank you for this article. I would be honored to contribute to this discussion.

    The outcry from stakeholders at Sweet Briar College is an historic movement in my opinion. I speak as an alumna of the College, a former employee of the College and someone who has worked in development and higher education for over 20 years.

    The President and Board of Sweet Briar College is violating the founder’s intentions. They are violating – and have violated – donor intent (which is also a violation of Virginia State Law). They are disregarding the wishes of stakeholders of the institution – students, parents, faculty, staff and alumnae.

    Part of the problem is the structure of the governance at Sweet Briar (and other nonprofits, schools and colleges). Without a shared governance model, any institution runs the risk of not only not HEARING the voices of their stakeholders, they also willfully disregard them.

    Bias of all kind – age, race, socio-economic – seems to be an issue here. Based on the comments by the President and some Board members (whose comments are available with a basic web search), it seems there is a sense that if the College cannot look and feel like what they remember, it shouldn’t be any longer. I would point out that campuses all across the country are more diverse in every way and it makes them healthier.

    Why should everyone care about and learn from what is going on at Sweet Briar, you can read more here: http://beingunlocked.com/2015/03/my-college-announced-it-is-closing-why-you-should-care-with-advice-for-anyone-associated-with-a-nonprofit-school-or-entity-governed-by-a-board/

  • ruth

    Stacy and Kelly:

    Thank you for your comments. We would love to be kept up to date on what you all are doing there. If you have not already looked at the “playbook” for the San Diego Opera when it went through some of the same issues you may wish to although it is certainly not completely transferable. Our very best wishes for the best possible outcome. Ruth

  • Judy Brown Fletcher

    At some point the composition of the Sweet Briar Board evolved to become one that lacked diversity in age, experience, and outlook. Where were the State or community leaders invested in education? Where were the outsiders whose business acumen could have given insight and guidance? The Board is now composed of alumnae insiders, three of whom are from the same Class of ’69 led by the College Interim President who is the husband of another classmate of ‘69. The Executive Committee is mostly male.

    The selection of this Interim President seems not to have been the result of a nationwide search by a professional search consultant. Anecdotal comments by a Board member indicate that the selection was instigated at a Reunion of the Class of ’69 and soon acted upon. To me this indicates a lack of understanding of the importance of matching the needs of an institution with the identified, proven skills of a prospective candidate. The College desperately needed someone who could analyze the economic and educational status of the school while leading faculty and supporters in defining and engaging the collective in new directions and initiatives.

    The crisis at my alma mater, Sweet Briar College, is a lesson for all of us involved in community boards and organizations. Diversity of thought, expression, and experience is the basis of a healthy structure. When a major change in direction is required, outside help and advice is critical. A Board must look outward and not devolve into a closed community that cannot grow.

  • Gretchen Van Ness

    Yes. The decision to close Sweet Briar is incomprehensible and should sound the alarm about crucial governance issues. We found the same pattern of neglect and blinkered decisionmaking in the Board of Trustees’ decision to adopt coeducation at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA, in 2013. Most concerning in our case was the lack of interest by PA state regulators in the College’s financial and legal irregularities and misrepresentations. One of the most serious problems with dysfunctional Boards is that there may be no legal recourse for the community for whom the Trustees hold the institution. We are seeing the concept of “stewardship” be replaced by the corporate idea of “ownership.” This change impacts nonprofit boards in damaging ways. I would be happy to contribute to the conversation.