Missouri Governor’s Problems Highlight a Nonprofit Vulnerability

By US Coast Guard Academy (110325-G-5709T-048-Ethics Forum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

March 6, 2018; Associated Press and St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The political troubles of Missouri Governor Eric Greitens have now ensnared The Mission Continues, a nonprofit he founded in 2007. Just weeks ago, the governor was indicted on a felony charge of invasion of privacy, stemming from his efforts to keep an extramarital affair from becoming public. The controversy over his indictment brought new attention to an old charge that his political campaign illegally used the nonprofits’ donor lists to raise funds for his gubernatorial campaign—charges that now threaten the ongoing operation of the nonprofit.

Greitens, a former Navy Seal, founded The Mission Continues “to provide opportunities for post-9/11 veterans to find purpose at home through community impact.” Greitens served as the organization’s CEO through 2014, when he stepped down to begin his run for state office. He continued to serve as a board member through 2015, which is when the alleged misuse of the organization’s donor lists is said to have occurred. Under his leadership, the organization grew from a small startup to a nationwide organization with major corporate and private sponsors. It serves veterans who seek to start a “new career, gain practical work experience while attending school or for a new way to serve at home” in partnership with community-based service organizations in a program that has received wide praise.

Weeks before Greitens’s victory in the 2016 gubernatorial race, the Associated Press analyzed financial records tied to a Greitens aide that showed the campaign “received nearly $2 million from donors who previously gave significant amounts to The Mission Continues—an overlap that was especially beneficial during the crucial startup of his campaign.”

Greitens said he was just calling “people who had become friends and gotten to know [him] over the course of seven years, who invested in The Mission Continues, and got to know me as a leader.” Later, as the campaign settled charges brought before the state’s ethics commission, he admitted using the list but did not provide details on how the list was obtained. At the time, The Mission Continues denied having provided lists to the campaign, and the controversy seemed to have faded away.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reignited the issue when it recently reported that the campaign had been given the list much earlier than had been previously admitted. According to the paper, a former TMC employee was the source of the list, which was created in 2014 and was emailed to two Greitens campaign workers in January 2015, months earlier than had previously been known. While the new revelations pose further legal and political issues for the governor, they have placed The Mission Continues back in the middle of a controversy that could threaten its nonprofit status.

In a statement reported by the Associated Press, The Mission Continues’s president, Spencer Kympton, told supporters “Greitens’s campaign actions had disrupted the work of the charity…Any use of The Mission Continues resources for any political or other unauthorized purpose would violate our policies and the trust we expect from each member of our staff.…If contacted, we will work to support the attorney general’s inquiry regarding the misuse of our resources by the Greitens campaign.”

There are lessons to be learned by nonprofit leaders from the problems of The Mission Continues, no matter how the AG’s investigation concludes. When a key leader leaves an organization, especially one that he or she founded, it is hard to change the nature of the relationship. Trust and intimacy may need to be replaced by a more formal, more distant connection to protect the organization. Were staff and board aware enough of the line between personal political activity and the organization’s work? When a key leader left to enter the world of politics, did the organization take time to consider any possible conflicts of interest and take steps to protect themselves? Were they able to make the lines between the two organizations bright enough to prevent the problem?—Martin Levine