Fatally Incurious Governance a Kind of Nonprofit Malfeasance

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?

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