James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

January 1, 2020; Deseret News

It is famously hard to know how to intervene in an organization whose longtime leadership apparently does not embody, and may even violate, the mission. Letting serious issues simmer is never good governance, but when fear of bad publicity and the discomfort of straining relationships overrides transparency, nonprofit boards trade a chosen course of inaction now for a burning platform later. These are the lessons to be learned from YWCA Utah.

To foster collaboration in the service of vulnerable women, the Salt Lake City Y’s Family Justice Center has been providing office space to staff from Journey of Hope. Both organizations share a mission, working to support women faced with serious life challenges. Journey of Hope specifically targets clients who are leaving the prison system or struggling with addiction or homelessness.

Despite this programmatic focus, and seemingly with little consultation, the Y began to require background checks for Journey to Hope clients and barred those found to have a criminal history from their building. This became a logistical nightmare for staff and clients, who in emergencies were sometimes forced to meet across the sidewalk in front of the building.

A mere momentary exhibition of otherworldly insensitivity, or a pattern? The executive director and board have been through at least one other recent period where leadership was charged with creating a toxic work environment—in that case, for women of color. According to a story in the Deseret News, more than two years ago, a member of the YWCA Utah staff complained to the board:

Among the issues…were lack of training, lack of communication, retaliation against employees or board members who raised issues, speaking to nonwhite employees more harshly or in condescending tones, and being inaccessible to employees or becoming defensive when offered criticism.

Seen as central to these charges was the culture created by longtime executive director Anne Burkholder, who garnered much of the credit for the organization’s success.

The board soon found itself with a serious problem. According to Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin, then the board’s president-elect, an independent investigator engaged by the Y’s board found the allegations held water. “She interviewed people, and she uncovered additional supporting experiences that were very similar to this first employee. So, it wasn’t an isolated incident or misunderstanding.”

When Burkholder was asked to respond to the report’s findings, she reportedly offered to resign. That, according to the Deseret News, “prompted some of her senior leadership, donors, and board members to come to her defense,” urging her to stay. Thus, a dynamic was established that led to the board effectively burying the consultant’s findings and recommendations. They did not release the report and kept their response within the confines of their boardroom. In protest, six board members, including Huftalin, quietly resigned, allowing the matter to fester unresolved and largely out of sight.

For two years, this strategy of silence worked. The Y’s reputation and public image were maintained. But no more; the controversy with Journey to Hope reopened the wound.

Journey to Hope’s CEO, Shannon Cox, put the issue squarely back on the board’s agenda when she wrote, “I feel a bit like David facing the ‘feminist Goliath’ but these violations of human rights will get one of my clients killed, so I cannot with a level of ethical obligation wait any longer to reveal these issues to your careful consideration.”

Women of color, regardless of whether they were staff or clients, were treated disrespectfully and dismissively; and these were concerns particularly troubling for an organization whose mission is “eliminating racism and empowering women.”

A single leader, though a powerful influence, is never the whole of a problem. Although Burkholder will leave in the spring, with the controversy now out in the open, the Y now must explain why an issue that speaks to their mission could be ignored for so long, even as they consider carefully what they’ll need to address in organizational culture and their needs for future leadership.

Huftalin describes the dilemma now facing their longtime supporters: “I still very much appreciate [the work of YWCA Utah], and I don’t want anything I say or do to harm their ability to raise funds or do work. I feel very torn, because I want people to support the organization, but I also want the organization to be responsible to racial and other problems within their own climate.”

All organizations have flaws, and even the best leaders need to be challenged. The question isn’t whether nonprofit boards will face these challenges, but when, and how they will respond when the moment comes. Choosing to keep a situation quiet may work in the short term, but keeping Pandora’s box sealed forever is seldom possible. Once it’s opened, problems that have been ignored will worsen. Taking on issues aggressively and transparently isn’t easy, but it offers real solutions rather than Band-Aids.—Martin Levine