Image Credit: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

From Ruth McCambridge, Editor in Chief: On February 10, 2016, NPQ published a newswire that I wrote about the Fortune Society and its choice for a new board chair in Dennis Kozlowski. In that newswire, I made an error regarding the organization’s finances, which we retracted when JoAnne Page, the longtime CEO, wrote to us. But she also had some other objections to the piece, wherein I suggested that Kozlowski, who was convicted and served time for misappropriating corporate funds from Tyco where he served as CEO, was not a good choice as a board president.

Page asked for a chance to respond to this second point, and here is that response, as written. I appreciate and respect Ms. Page’s conviction regarding the why’s of this decision in relation to the group’s mission and values, and the whole situation provides a chance for all of us to consider the complexities of our values-based choices.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your troubling column of February 10th, 2016 about the Fortune Society and its new chairman, Dennis Kozlowski.

I would like to start by thanking you for your retraction of your error regarding Fortune’s financial health. At a time when nonprofits are under real challenges to their viability, we pride ourselves on the rigor with which we manage Fortune’s finances and the steady growth that we have seen during my 27 years as CEO.

In further clarification, contrary to what is implied in the column, Fortune’s board chair does not have a direct hand in financial management of the agency. That is my role and that of our Chief Financial Officer, with review by the board and oversight by our board’s Audit and Finance Committee. Dennis’s insights and coaching will be present and much valued, but neither he nor any of our board members directly manage our financial affairs.

I am writing this response primarily for reasons of policy and values. I am saddened by the stance that you have taken toward our election of Dennis Kozlowski to the volunteer position of Chair of Fortune’s Board of Directors. I hope that you—and your readers—will thoughtfully reconsider what we too often see happen when a person has finished his period of incarceration and is working to build a new, positive life in the community.

All too common is a reflex response that automatically injures an individual’s future opportunities by dredging up issues from the person’s past long after the punishment for them has officially ended. Fortune works to change this attitude because it damages the lives of so many of the almost 6,000 people who come to us for help each year.

Fortune is proud to have Dennis Kozlowski as our board chair, and as a board member for two years prior. His election as chair is based on our confidence in him and our appreciation for his willingness to work hard in this volunteer position.

It is hurtful to see him slapped in a column such as yours when the reason that he has come to your attention is because he is volunteering his time and energy to help do something good in the community. Had he chosen simply to devote his energy to his own business concerns, he would likely never have come to your attention and would never have had to endure the hurtful things that you wrote about him.

For you to describe Dennis as you did reflects an attitude that is all too common: punishing people beyond the point when they have completed their sentence.

The Fortune Society is an organization that “walks the walk” and lives its values. We believe that when someone has served his time and endured the punishment of the sentence set by judge and jury, the punishment should end when the sentence has been served.

Fortune is both a service and an advocacy organization. We serve men and women who are trying to rebuild their lives after incarceration. We fight for individuals who deserve to receive alternatives to incarceration sentences. We believe that this country relies on mass incarceration in a way that profoundly damages lives and communities, and we are part of the growing movement trying to roll back the destructiveness of this social policy.

Fortune values all of the people who come to us for help. We see the potential in them to be contributing members of society, and we nurture their potential. We do not condemn people for their past. We teach them and help them to become resources for their community.

In order to do our work and reflect our mission, we draw from the population we serve.  I am proud to say that more than half of the people who work at Fortune are formerly incarcerated. They provide invaluable leadership and role modeling and demonstrate a deep commitment to reaching back and helping those who follow them.

Since our founding in 1967, and by bylaw, individuals who are formerly incarcerated make up at least one third of our board. This helps to keep us honest to our mission.

I honor Dennis for taking his experience of incarceration and using it to help others who are far less fortunate than he. Dennis comes to us with extensive management skills and we are grateful to have his expertise and service at this challenging time in nonprofit management. He should be thanked for his volunteer work, and I want to take this opportunity to do so.

With Dennis Kozlowski at the helm of our board, The Fortune Society remains one of the most respected and effective reentry organizations in the nation.  And, it will be so for years to come.

Thank you for the opportunity to voice the values and policy commitments that I have stated above: that people deserve to have a fair chance to rebuild their lives after sentences of incarceration. I would hope that you would take this opportunity to publicly retract your statements and honor Dennis’s willingness to contribute his volunteer efforts toward helping our nonprofit advance its lifesaving work.