That is the question.” Credit: Beatnik Photos

May 6, 2017; Chicago Tribune

Over the past few weeks, we’ve shared stories of how public nonprofit ethics scandals such as those at Goodwill Omaha and Livestrong Foundation can send organizations reeling, taking years for the organizations’ leaders and brands to recover. Last week, the Chicago Tribune brought another such case into the spotlight. George Sheldon, who took the helm of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) two years ago, is being questioned for several cases of potential conflicts of interest. The high profile probe has quickly thrown DCFS and other child services agencies of Sheldon’s past and future into an unwelcome spotlight.

Sheldon, a longtime Florida Democrat, occupied positions as state representative, deputy attorney general for central Florida, and Secretary of the Department of Children and Families before taking the national stage in 2011 as Acting Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during the Obama administration. Now, he may be moving back to Florida to assume leadership of Our Kids, a child services agency recently troubled with a leadership exodus following suicides of youth in the agency’s programs.

It is these ties to the state Sheldon calls home that have captured the attention of the Illinois inspector general. Sheldon took the reins of the Illinois DCFS after its own period of significant executive transition, churning through seven directors in the three years before Sheldon’s accepted the role. He stepped in, promising sweeping changes largely centered around advancing the technology DCFS was using to identify cases of child neglect and abuse and target the efforts of its team. When it came time to implement those changes, Sheldon looked first to his Florida-based companies and individuals tied to his former political campaigns as his partners and those that would receive the lucrative contracts associated with Illinois DCFS partnerships.

Sheldon explained to the Tribune, “I came into a troubled department at best. It was apparent to me when I got in here that I needed some people who were knowledgeable and I could trust.” But those knowledgeable, trustworthy people—including his driver Igor Davidovich Anderson and regional administrator Jacquetta Colyer—were all embroiled in their own ethics and mismanagement challenges.

As Sheldon takes his likely next step to assume leadership at Our Kids (recruited directly by Keith Ward, chair of the Our Kids board of directors), it raises concerns, once again, around the impact that leadership or its lack can have on the ethical construct of organizations. Partnerships and strategies driven by elements outside the mission or the boundaries of strong organizational governance can shake an organization’s foundation in a way that can take years to unwind.—Danielle Holly