Nonprofits and the Dangers of “Charismatic” Leadership

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November 6, 2016; Sacramento Bee

It’s a daunting challenge to collapse this story of the dangers that charismatic leadership poses to nonprofits down to newswire size, but it’s worth the try. With a charismatic leader, there is always the danger that others will follow them blindly into places they collectively wish they had not gone. Oversight and rationality may fly out the window to allow the personality and ego of the leader to expand apace. In some cases, the details of the exalted leader/follower dynamic can become downright embarrassing.

The Sacramento Bee reports that Courage House, a residence for girls who had been subjected to sex trafficking, had “paused” its operations as of June 14th after a number of citations from regulators and eight police calls to the house. However, the facility did not bother to tell the California governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) of this pause—or that it was laying off most of its staff—and on June 17th, Courage House received notification of a $60,808 grant. OES first learned about the closing on August 20th, in a Bee report. Meanwhile, the organization emailed OES at least eight times asking for advice on the forms, including those for requesting reimbursements.

According to the Bee, Courage Worldwide and its nationally known charismatic founder, Jenny Williamson, may have been too busy to let funders know about the closure, as they were raising money based on a “grandiose vision of local and global expansion.” Before Courage House closed, it was only at half capacity with only 12 beds to fill. (This is also the case at its other facility, in Tanzania.) Despite this, according to this report, Williamson and others representing the organization have claimed that there were long waiting lists for their rescue services, justifying in this way a plan to expand the Northern California facility to 60 beds. They also claimed to be considering additional Courage House facilities in Hawaii, Texas, Mississippi and India.

OES reported a few days after they found out about the closure that Williamson said “she neglected to notify Cal OES of this closure because she and her administrative staff did not intend to charge funds to their [grant] beyond mid-June since they stopped providing services to clients and intended to simply stop billing, submit reporting documents and close their grant.”

Courage Worldwide eventually submitted for $39,000 in reimbursements for services up to June 7th but, lacking the required documentation, it received less than half that. Say what you will about her, Williamson can organize folks.

The controversy marks a radical turn of events for Williamson, 55, Courage Worldwide’s founder, board chairman, and chief executive officer.

For years, Williamson has enjoyed a geyser of positive publicity as she traveled across the country, speaking about child sex trafficking and pitching her 2015 motivational book, Do You Have the Courage To Be You?

Diverse individuals and businesses have lined up to volunteer or raise money for Courage House, including prison inmates, police officers, area churches, and supporters ranging from William Jessup University to the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

According to the group’s Facebook page, one donor walked into Williamson’s Rocklin office in April and dropped off a wrapped package containing $12,173 that the woman had collected from co-workers after “God asked her to raise money for our organization.”

But this article cites one situation after another where outcomes fell disastrously, even absurdly short of what was promised. Even while mismanagement reigned at its two small facilities, Williamson and her colleagues were painting a vision of an international network of services. All of this, write Marjie Lundstrom and Sam Stanton, was reflected in the budget:

The group’s IRS forms reflect an organization with steadily rising expenses. Between 2012 (the first full year of operation) and 2015, costs for advertising and promotion more than doubled to $52,000. Office expenses were up more than fivefold. Travel expenses rose by 50 percent.

Overall, fundraising costs were up about 152 percent during that period. Management and general expenses grew by 65 percent. Program service expenses, meanwhile, rose 16 percent.

As mentioned, the presence of a charismatic leader can often blockade the reasonable challenging conversations we need to have to keep our organizations accountable. Those groups blessed with one of these rainmakers need to be very careful to back them up with accountability systems that are unstinting.—Ruth McCambridge