Simple Questions

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 23rd, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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I am troubled by how little we learn from other people’s mistakes.  Perhaps it is arrogance that leads us as individuals and leaders of organizations to think that we are smarter than others, we could never…  But, truth is, the vast majority of us aren’t smarter than others, and we could do whatever.

There is no loss of stature or pride to say, “Oh, what a mistake that person/organization made.  Let’s just take stock to make sure I/we am/are not risking making that same mistake.”  The loss of stature and pride comes—and it comes big time—when you don’t learn from others and down the road make that very same mistake.

So, I am saddened by how few have taken stock in light of the mistakes of others, most recently Penn State and Susan G. Komen, though going back we can find so many ripe examples.  (And, please, don’t say it is too early to know whether people will learn from Komen, because it has just happened.

In light of what hasn’t happened at nonprofits in the aftermath of Bernie Madoff, Penn State and the thousands of mistakes headlined in local papers and other media month after month, year after year, there is absolutely no reason to believe that anything will happen next month, next year.)

Perhaps if I spell it out, give folks a start of a primer, it might guide the introspection and make things a little easier.

  1. A board has a legal obligation to make sure that our organization adheres to the law.  As a board, however, it also has a moral obligation to create an organizational culture that is supportive of and conducive to the best possible execution of our mission and built on an ethical base.  We may, as a board and organization, go beyond the minimum set by the law; we simply may not do less.  Thus, if the law says that if you learn of an employee or someone on the facilities of our organization molesting a child, and you are not in one of a handful of positions, you must report it to your supervisor, an organization with a mission to serve, educate (intellectually, morally, physically), nurture may go beyond that and require a far more aggressive response.  Not only may we, it would seem a no brainer that we must.  How can our mission charge us with enhancing the lives of our clients, be they children, youth or adults, through whatever means—be it education, health care, food, art, etc.—and not do our utmost to protect their physical and mental health?  Is an employee of a nonprofit theatre legally obligated to report a sexual attack witnessed in a theatre bathroom?  No.  Should the moral and cultural norms of that theatre require such reporting? Absolutely yes.  Who sets those standards and expectations?  The board.

Simple questions:  board members, how many of you have had a conversation about quality of your organization’s culture? Its norms and values? Its ethical fiber?  Executive directors, how many of you have given thought, asked the board to give thought, to the ethical standards set forth for the organization?

  1. It is amazing to me how little thought is actually given to the mission of an organization when decisions are made.  When board and staff are asked, in some form, the equivalent of “how well does your program/organization/board use the mission as a compass in all of its decision making?” the most common answers fall at the negative end of the response spectrum:  rarely, never, occasionally.  How is this possible?  How is it that every decision that a board, executive director and/or every other staff makes isn’t rooted in the context of “how will this decision affect our ability to deliver on our mission promises?”  How?  How is it that the decision tree—actual or just a thought processes—doesn’t carry all the way through to that end point:  how will trying to cover up the truth now play out down the road?  How will cessation of funding for a long-time grantee play out in the media?  What seems like expediency now, a good idea now, can cost a lot down the road.  Just ask the Catholic Church (specifically right now, you could ask the Archdiocese of Philadelphia), which has as part of its mission “exercising charity” and healing “the sufferings of all who are hurting.” Ask Komen how well they thought about their mission—“ to save lives and end breast cancer forever by empowering people, ensuring quality of care for all”—in deciding to rescind money from the number provider of breast screenings to poor women of all ages?

Simple question:   how well do you—be you board member, executive director or staff member—use the mission as your compass in making decisions within your organization?  Is it your guide for the big decisions and the little ones?

  1. “A good reputation is more valuable than money,” so said Publilius Syrus back in the first century B.C.  Doubt many people read his maxims anymore, but perhaps this is one that should be de rigueur reading for everyone affiliated with a nonprofit. Earlier this year, Convio came out with its predictions of the top trends for nonprofits in 2012.  One of its predictions is that peer-to-peer information exchange is going to have a greater influence on individual donor decision-making than information received from a nonprofit.  In other words, people are going to be more likely to rely on referrals from family, friends and colleagues as to the good and deserving nonprofits to support with dollars (and, one might assume, time).  The December report entitled “The Study of High Net Worth  Women’s Philanthropy and The Impact of Women’s Giving Networks” found that in nearly 90% of high net worth philanthropists, women were the sole decision maker or shared the decision equally with their partners.  Further, women donors were far more likely to have a strategy to their giving, to be influenced by a personal experience with the organization and public knowledge of that organization.

Simple question:  where does your organization’s reputation stand on the net value continuum?  Just how valuable is your good name? “Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of – for credit is like fire; when once you have kindled it you may easily preserve it, but if you once extinguish it, you will find it an arduous task to rekindle it again. The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.”  (Socrates)

  1. Donors, bigger is not always better.  Just because a nonprofit has a national presence, a known name, a ribbon on a bazillion products or an instantly recognizable logo, doesn’t mean it is an organization worthy of your donation.  Do your homework!  Peel back that onion! There is so much good work being done by nonprofits whose names aren’t household words, which do their good works right in your community, which are totally trustworthy because they truly value every donor and their good name.  Just because an entity is a known commodity, just because you have used its services once, just because you have given in the past, is not sufficient reason for a gift; dig a little!  And then judge an organization, warts and all, on its worthiness.

Simple question:  donors, what do you really know about the nonprofits to which you give your hard-earned money?  Have you read their 990, looked at the composition of their Boards of directors, seen evidence of impact, googled the executive directors and board presidents?

None of us is perfect, nor should we expect any one or any organization to be so.  But we risk not even going in the right direction if we can’t and won’t use the bumps and chasms on other people’s/organizations’ roads to make our own smoother.  And the smoother the path of a nonprofit, the better it can be at fulfilling its mission.

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.