Move On Up #2,” Michael Pardo

February 18, 2018; Straits Times (Singapore)

Many nonprofits will go through a number of CEOs in their lifespans. The goals that each emphasizes may be different, and there are times, especially during periods of growth. The achievement of one set of goals can mask others going uncompleted—ones that just are as necessary but may not be as vivid…until they are obvious.

Jane Prior’s devotion to the Bone Marrow Donor Programme in Singapore runs deep; More than twenty years ago, her son received a transplant through the program, and she volunteered there for years before becoming the board president. In 2012, she was appointed CEO, and since then the organization has grown impressively. The number of donors has grown from 55,000 to 80,000 and, perhaps more importantly, where 80 to 90 percent of transplant matches once came from overseas, last year around 50 percent came from local donors. Available funds grew from $1.6 million in 2012 to $17 million in 2017.

At the same time, the organization was running up some non-financial deficits, as judged by an audit ordered by the Ministry of Health (MOH) which identified “critical and major” areas of concern in the running of the organization. In August, the program was issued an ultimatum to clean up its administrative and governance practices.

The audit, performed by KPMG Services, identified “excessive” use of donations on marketing and entertainment and “unclear policy” regarding BMDP’s reimbursement practice for entertainment and travel. For instance, as Prior admits, they didn’t have a policy on what kinds of lodgings the volunteer couriers who collect blood stem cells from overseas donors should use. “We did have a staff handbook,” she says, “but didn’t have all those things in place and that was something I had to learn,” adding that a policy is now in place. She recounts the situation:

It was obviously really frustrating. There were so many queries about what we were doing and yet if we had the chance to sit down and explain it, it was all absolutely kosher. I think it is case of us growing and doing exciting things and we haven’t necessarily written them all down on paper (in the form of company policies).

Way to put the whole thing in a nutshell. This kind of trap—of protocols lagging behind growth—is by no means unusual, and for an organization in a highly contracted and regulated space, it can be fatal.

Prior says it wasn’t the audit findings that led her to resign; she realized it was time for an all-around change. “I like building things, but I felt it was time to let somebody else do this, to bring new vision to the team,” she said.

An MOH spokesperson affirmed there was no direct link: “There is no condition for any board or staff member to resign. MOH has reminded BMDP to ensure continuity in its operations, so that beneficiaries are not affected.”

It appears Prior has much to be proud of in her tenure. But, as one smart nonprofit leader always cautions, it’s critical to monitor the areas that lie outside your sweet spot of natural interest, because the seeds of your destruction are likely growing there.—Ruth McCambridge