February 23, 2019; Dickinson Press and Grand Forks Herald
Two United Way chapters in North Dakota have suffered recent 20 percent-plus fundraising downturns. Souris Valley United Way in Minot, ND has dropped from about $1 million in 2016 to $750,000 in 2017. The Grand Forks United Way has experienced an almost identical decrease.
While Souris Valley’s historical revenue as reported by ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer shows a rise from 2013–2014 to 2016 followed by a return to 2013–2014 totals in 2017, the Grand Forks chapter has departed from a tradition of million-dollar annual revenue totals going back at least as far as 2002. So, what’s happening in Grand Forks?
The answer may be related to the ouster of the chapter’s 24-year executive director, Pat Berger. Berger was placed on administrative leave in December and was apparently terminated in January. The board was distressed over a Facebook post made by Berger in late November that criticized the news reporting by a local television station. Berger claimed the post was made in her capacity as a private individual and did not involve the United Way chapter. According to Berger, there was no documentation of “unprofessional behavior” on her part prior to her being placed on administrative leave and subsequently fired.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
The television station and the local Grand Forks Herald newspaper are both owned by the same media company. Berger, responding to news that WDAZ-TV was merging with WDAY-TV in Fargo, asked on Facebook: “So Fargo is the only thing of interest in ND? Wow. I guess they don’t really care about [Grand Forks] or the northern valley….Feel like soon we will only have a Fargo Forum as our ‘local’ newspaper, too!”
The newspaper’s publisher, Korrie Wenzel, felt obliged to defend itself against Berger’s Facebook post. “The contributions of this company to the Grand Forks United Way—literally thousands upon thousands of dollars each year in cash and nearly the same again in free advertising—have been great, portraying in just one way much how this company cares about Grand Forks and the northern valley.”
The whole situation sounds messy and it’s no surprise the lawyers are being summoned. However, why do we know as much as we do about it, especially given the fact that it is a personnel matter? Here’s another cautionary note for board members and nonprofit organizations.
According to the Grand Forks Herald, “The United Way is not a public entity and therefore its emails are not necessarily open to public view. However, several board members maintain government email accounts, which are considered open to public view, and the Herald requested emails sent and received by those government accounts.” In other words, board members of a private nonprofit using government e-mail accounts to discuss confidential personnel matters and, apparently unwittingly, opened the door to public disclosure. Former ED Berger may have cause to sue those board members as well as her former employer for breach of confidentiality.
We can easily see a justification for Grand Forks United Way and other nonprofits to evaluate their personnel policies to assure prompt and proper documentation of alleged poor performance. In addition, nonprofit boards need to set and follow communication policies with an eye to being transparent with the public while still protecting legally confidential and proprietary information (such as personnel actions) as part of their board’s deliberations.—Michael Wyland