The Shifting Parameters of Governance: Some Thoughts about Sweet Briar, Indiana, and the Role of Boards

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Last week, NPQ extensively covered the stories of the stakeholder revolt at Sweet Briar College and the response of the general public to the now-partially-amended Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana. In both cases, a governing body made a decision that was unacceptable to other stakeholders, who are at once responsible in part for support of the institution and who expect that that relationship is a two-way street. They expect their interests (in terms of self-interest and shared cause and values) to be considered in a reasonable way, and if they are not, they will take action. These cases only add to the cases of stakeholder revolt NPQ has been covering, which also include the likes of Susan G. Komen (for the Cure) and Market Basket, a for-profit grocery chain.

That action is, of course, aided by a digital environment that allows for easy communication between stakeholder groups, which, as in Sweet Briar’s case, might include alumni, faculty, donors, local government and community members. In such an environment, I would argue that the role of the board changes. It becomes less of a vaguely representative body and more a body that is responsible for listening with acute ears to their stakeholders and managing with the information that flows from that process. This assumes that boards must become less insular and more culturally attuned so that flatfooted missteps are not made in the name of their supporters. This does not, of course, immunize an organization against making what may be unpopular decisions, but it provides ballast for a balanced view of those decisions among stakeholders. The ballast is created of trust, and that requires communications that reflect the shared ethic of the institution.

One might imagine this extra load of accountability might become onerous, or alternately that it might result in the dumbing down of an institution to its lowest common denominator. If the governed were whimsical and easily led by the loudest or most strident voices, or if trust is already eroded, such things might indeed happen, but the opposite could also happen if new practices of transparency, engagement, and communication are embraced.

In short, denial of our new environment is no protection for the wise organization. Engagement around an organization can be a tool if used; if not, then it can be a scourge, and it is the job of governance to enter this new era, listening differently to stakeholders and communicating the organizations’ governance considerations early and often, wherever possible.


  • Gayle Gifford

    In my 1997 second edition of “Boards That Make A Difference,” John Carver writes: “A board cannot carry out its responsibilities without determining exactly whom the [moral] ownership includes, and how those owners are heard.” He goes on to discuss the many ways that boards can make real the linkage to this moral ownership, including surveys, focus groups, interviews, invited presentations, meeting with other boards, reading the newspaper, etc. etc.

    It’s not that this is a new idea in defining board responsibility. But as you said, it today’s world, that moral ownership is not so willing to be dismissed.

  • Ruth McCambridge

    So true Gayle! it is the ultimate duty of loyalty come home to roost!

  • Jim

    Responding to your comment: One might imagine this extra load of accountability might become onerous, or alternately that it might result in the dumbing down of an institution to its lowest common denominator.

    This past week I visited a local incubator project in Santa Rosa,CA and I was advised by one of the women leaders that their organization does not operate like a nonprofit. They are registered in CA as a L3C , she said they are not accountable like a nonprofit (rules)because they are exempt from complete transparency governance. Is this True? There may need to be a seminar on this alone.

    The other issue they told me about was making it a federal case that all grants from government agencies must include funding to pay a living wage to nonprofit employees. Is this true or is this in the works? Federal contractors must do this now she said.


  • Vernetta Walker

    After re-reading this article it occurred to me that the behaviors we’re looking for and need from our governing bodies are partially addressed in Governance as Leadership. The need for boards to consider their actions in a broader context is not new. The fact that their decisions and actions will spread quickly and extend far beyond their institutions’ “primary customers,” however, has everything to do with our digital environment.

    Governance as Leadership points to several signs that indicate an opportunity and need for generative work by the board, before moving forward with key decisions, including:

    Saliency – the issue, however defined, means a great deal to a great many, especially influential people or important constituencies,

    Stakes – the stakes are high because the discussion does or could invoke questions of core values and organizational identity, and

    Irreversibility – the decision or action cannot be easily revised or reversed, due as much or more to psychological than financial commitments.

    The examples in the commentary are excellent because of their different fact patterns, but in each example the governing bodies failed to consider the extended body of stakeholders. These are powerful lessons that should make boards more mindful and attentive to the decisions they make. Unfortunately, because of the digital age, this is probably only the tip of the iceberg.