August 7, 2012; Source: Times Leader

There are many lessons to be learned when a nonprofit organization’s misdeeds are reported in the media. The Freeh Report (which NPQ has covered extensively here and here), detailing Penn State’s handling of child sexual abuse allegations involving Jerry Sandusky, is fertile ground for such lessons to be learned. In an editorial for the Times Leader, Patricia Mogan of the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, finds a few lessons for nonprofit boards in the Freeh Report.

By its own count, Penn State is subject to 350 policies. Mogan says the board’s question to staff should be, “What is our system of policy oversight?” Mogan’s opinion is that, “A nonprofit should have a system and/or committee structure in place to ensure the review [of policies] takes place on a periodic basis.” This is a good idea, but it doesn’t necessarily help the board assure that a particular federal mandate is being followed through proper establishment and application of supporting policies.

Another good question for board members to ask, Mogan writes, is, “What do we need to know for risk-management purposes?” Mogan points out that Penn State trustees were not actively engaged in asking good questions and demanding good answers from the president and other senior administrators. She also notes that the CEO/board relationship was skewed in favor of trustees deferring to administrators rather than having the administrators take their lead from the board.

This last concern leads to the issue of changing Penn State’s culture, the first—and arguably the toughest to implement—recommendation of the Freeh Report. Mogan implies that governing boards must take responsibility for identifying and cultivating an organization’s cultural values and beliefs—in this case, values and beliefs that serve the children and youth at Penn State.

In order for boards to step up to this assertive, collaborative leadership role, board members will need even more sustained training and development than the Freeh Report recommends be included in the board orientation process. Changing the culture of the organization first requires changing the culture of the governing board. Mogan is right in saying that boards need to “sit up and pay attention to where their focus needs to be.” That can happen once the board, staff, and other stakeholders understand what “pay attention” means in order to discover “where their focus needs to be,” but reaching that understanding requires an education process, not a simple admonishment. –Michael Wyland