They Mean Well

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 29th, 2019 in Thoughts & Commentary

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When executive directors and board presidents talk to me about their boards of directors, they often begin the conversation with, “they mean well, but…” What follows is an array what they don’t do, what they say they will do, that they aren’t engaged, that they don’t show up, and on and on.  Every one of the particulars that follows the but, regardless of what it is, reveals one hard fact:  meaning well isn’t enough.  In fact, meaning well can be downright dangerous to a nonprofit.  It all depends upon the impetus for the well meaning.

There are those who have no motive but to help, and just don’t know how to help, what is expected, what to do, etc.  There’s a simple fix for this:  education, education and more education. 

Then there are those who mean well for whom the impetus is whitewashing; they mean well for themselves.  Back in 1970, Laud Humphrey’s published his doctoral dissertation under the title, Tearoom Trade:  Impersonal Sex in Public Places.  An investigation of men’s sexual behavior/encounters in the men’s public bathrooms in a major US city, it proved to be an eye-opening, and mind-blowing read for many, but particularly for my undergraduate students at this Catholic institution. 

What was mind-blowing, to use a term from Humphrey’s study period, to the students, and others, was the number of  men participating in homosexual acts who identified as straight, had wives and children waiting from them at home after their stop at a public bathroom.  Students, and others, were shocked to read that many of these men were leaders in their workplaces, communities and places of workshop.  Humphrey aptly termed this the breastplate of righteousness.   Today, we might refer to it as moral whitewashing:  doing one thing in public and the exact opposite in private.  Living largely the public life of a model citizen, while being much less than that in private.

Moral whitewashing, when done well, may be one of the greatest threats to nonprofits in these times.  Recent headlines prove this point.  George Mitchell, former US Senator, recently resigned as chair of the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s compensation fund for victims of sexual abuse by priests.  Claiming demands at work for his reason for leaving the fund, Mitchell stepped down weeks before an allegation became public that he partook of at least one of Jeffrey Epstein’s underage sex slaves.  While Mitchell is denying the accusation, it nevertheless, and not surprisingly, has raised questions among the victims of priests’ sexual abuse, as well as others, and presented a problem for the fund and the Archdiocese. 

Was Mitchell wearing his breastplate in his role on the victims’ compensation fund, or was he simply a well-meaning, caring individual who wanted to help correct the wrongs that others did, and allowed to happen?  Unfortunately for the organizations involved, they don’t have the luxury of time to debate the question or investigate to find the truth.  Their reputation is on the line now and the boards must act immediately to control any damage.  

Sadly of late, we have seen, after the fact, too many examples of people using their philanthropy to whitewash their own misdeeds.  The Sackler family, owners of the pharmaceutical company that produces OxyContin, has spent to put its name on dozens of wings, rooms, courtyards, whole museums at cultural institutions in multiple countries.  Jeffrey Epstein gave, or claimed to have given (there are disputes as to whether he actually gave to all of the organizations he claimed) hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities of all stripes:  from Harvard and MIT to a variety of youth organizations, from health related organizations to Jewish organizations.  Well-intentioned white washing?

Too many will say, “Why does it matter?  Dollars are dollars:  dollars given by well-intentioned individuals buys just as much as dollars given by folks wearing that breastplate.  We are a nonprofit and we need the money to do the good work that we do.  We aren’t the ones who have done the bad things.  Why does it matter?” 

There could not be a more naïve and harmful way of thinking.  It matters because of the smearing by association.  It matters because an organization that exists for the promised purpose of serving the public good is doing so in association with harmful, destructive and, oftentimes, illegal behavior.   It matters because we are supposed to be building up society, not condoning behaviors that tear it down.    

For the sake of your reputation, which directly correlates with your ability to do your mission work, you must be clear, up front, as to what your organization will and won’t tolerate, what it can and can’t bear.  And, then, you must do the best homework you can before agreeing to connect with someone, be s/he potential donor, staff, board member, other volunteer.   Sadly, we are no longer able to take people at face value, but must question who they are, their motivations, their WIITFM (what’s in it for me?).

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.