The Voice of the Major Donor in Social Change

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August 26, 2015; Willamette Week (Portland, OR)

St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, Oregon, is in the news because two longtime major donors are protesting the Catholic school’s decision to rescind a job offer extended to a teacher who told a school official that she was gay after being offered the job. The donors are an alumna, Mary Boyle, and her husband, Tim Boyle, who is the CEO of Columbia Sportswear, a major workforce employer in the area.

The teacher, Lauren Brown, was taking a cut in pay in order to move from an administrative position in another school to St. Mary’s so that she could work more directly with students.

The Willamette Week reported that the school rescinded the job offer, saying her impending marriage to a woman conflicts with church doctrine, and promised the teacher a year’s salary and benefits if she would remain quiet about the decision. Paying for silence is yet another issue, and Brown decided she would rather tell her story, thus setting an example for “students not to be ashamed of who they are.”

The Boyles reacted to the decision by providing a statement to the Willamette Week, which included the following paragraph:

Most recently, one of us participated in a successful public forum hosted by St. Mary’s addressing how to prepare St. Mary’s students for the workforce of the future. The news this week is an example of how to not prepare students. There is no place in the workplace of today, or of the future, for discriminating against an individual based on sexual orientation.

Nonprofits must continually balance their relationship with their major donors. How much voice does a major donor get over others, such as the board members, or staff, or community volunteers? Sometimes, such voices are helpful in moving the organization forward, or are focused on specific issues that resonate strongly with the donor. Sometimes that voice is helpful, and sometimes it is not.

Perhaps the issue in this story is one where you agree with the major donors. What happens next time, when the donor speaks up and you don’t agree with that position? Where do organizations draw the line in listening to donors?

Do you support the idea that major donors should challenge the organization by taking up social issues? Or do you feel that even major donors should not have a “louder” voice than others?—Jeanne Allen

  • Paula Manley

    Some important context regarding the St Mary’s Academy story: The young woman who was discriminated against based on her sexual orientation spoke out about what happened (She was hired and then the offer was rescinded), and the students organized visibly and vocally to demand that the school administration change its discriminatory policy. It’s great that major donors and Portland’s mayor spoke out, too, but they did not lead this change — the young women of St Mary’s did that.

    • Jeanne

      Paula, thanks for sharing more details. Often there is more to stories than what is initially highlighted. Its great when local folks are able to add to it.