January 25, 2018; New York Times
Is being a big donor sufficient to serve on a nonprofit board? Does it trump sharing a common vision with the organization? How high should the wall be between board members’ political lives and their role as organizational leaders? For the leadership of New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), these questions are anything but academic at a moment when they are being asked to remove a wealthy, climate-change-denying board member.
Recently, several hundred scientists and academics signed an open letter asking the AMNH Board to sever ties with Rebekah Mercer, a board member since 2013.
When some of the biggest contributors to climate change and funders of misinformation on climate science sponsor exhibitions in museums of science and natural history, they undermine public confidence in the validity of the institutions responsible for transmitting scientific knowledge…The most important asset any museum has is its credibility. This can be damaged by ties to donors and board members who are publicly known for investing in climate science obfuscation and opposing environmental solutions. We ask the American Museum of Natural History, and all public science museums, to end ties to anti-science propagandists and funders of climate science misinformation, and to have Rebekah Mercer leave the American Museum of Natural History Board of Trustees.
Mercer and her family foundation have made large donations to several organizations that reject the science of global warming and its human causes, positions that directly conflict with the museum’s focus on educating its public about the dangers we are facing as the earth warms. According to the New York Times, “tax records…show that the Mercers have given a little over $19 million to a variety of conservative groups, including at least three that reject the scientific consensus around fossil fuel-driven climate change: the Heartland Institute in Illinois, as well as the CO2 Alliance and the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change.” Mercer’s foundation has also given the museum $4 million.
According to BoardSource, board members are responsible for knowing “the organization’s mission, policies, programs, and needs and…serving as active advocates and ambassadors for the organization and fully engaging in identifying and securing the financial resources and partnerships necessary for the organization to advance its mission.” A board’s responsibilities are not just internal, and they are certainly not primarily fundraising; the wider, external set of stakeholders must also be considered.
When, as in this case, the board member is a financial asset but rejects core beliefs of the organization, who is to do the vetting, and how? In the case of Mercer, she does not share the museum’s understanding of climate science and supports organizations that work to undermine its educational efforts. So, did the museum’s leadership not think about the implications of this conflict? Did they vet her candidacy with the scientific community it relies on for credibility? Was her potential financial support thought to be so large that it would make up for any reputational harm she might cause?
In a statement given to the Times, the museum said it believes it is possible to reap the benefits of such a board member. “The museum deeply respects the work and views of scientists…We also respect and understand scientists’ role in society, including adding their voices to political debates that relate to scientific issues. The museum itself, however, does not make appointment decisions concerning staff or trustees based on political views. The museum has long maintained that its funders do not shape its curatorial decisions.”
Supporting this position is Reynold Levy, the former president of New York’s Lincoln Center, who told the Times that a “political litmus test for who should serve can be very destructive to a nonprofit institution. If the mission and important portions of the program are supported by the trustee, what they do in the political world shouldn’t be relevant.” The museum pointed to the numerous exhibits they have mounted focused on climate science as proof of their ability to keep the private activities of their board members separate from their organizational role.
They may be correct that Mercer’s board role had no impact on the quality and integrity of their institution. Yet, when science is as politicized as it now is, what may be clear internally looks murkier from the outside. There is a big risk of serious reputational harm from a board member like this. According to the Huffington Post, Jonah Busch, an environmental economist at the nonpartisan Center for Global Development, accused the museum on Twitter of promoting misinformation on climate change when he found in its Dinosaur Wing an informational plaque that minimized the significant impact of human activity on the environment.
“When you’ve got people like Mercer on the board,” Busch said, “it just makes it that much harder to give the benefit of doubt when they are putting up inaccurate information about climate change. Something you could give a pass to as an innocuous mistake starts to have the appearance of something more sinister.”
The conflict between mission and financial security may never have been easy to balance. In the current moment, it may be impossible. The accessibility of personal information makes the private lives of board members not so private. The ability to communicate quickly and widely makes it more difficult to contain the impact of a real or perceived conflict. The strong feelings and passions that roil our political world push boards to choose sides when they would otherwise not wish to. But, as the AMNH is now forced to struggle with challenges to their scientific integrity because of a board member’s private activities, the issue is just one tweet away from another board agenda.
The conflicts are not just about science. Personal politics, ethics, morals, and the source of wealth have all been causes of recent challenges to board service. This is a time for all boards to think about how they will respond when an important board member and donor is challenged. Or, as Steve Dubb concluded in another, similar story earlier this year, “The answers are not easy, but the questions are hard to avoid.”—Martin Levine