Consequences of Underperforming Boards

Posted by Joan Ulmer on October 18th, 2019 in Thoughts & Commentary

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A drumbeat can be a great background addition to the music.  But when it is the music itself, something needs to change.  Underperforming boards seem to be my background noise.  No surprise, since that is the nature of my work. 

While I hate saying this aloud, it seems even worse to put it in print to be shared repeatedly with no possibility of denial.  But there are scenarios when even if a board isn’t doing what it should, the organization suffers no harm.  No benefit will come either; potential will not be met, but the organization won’t collapse as long as strong paid leadership is present. 

So, yes, I’ve said it:  there are times and situations where a nonprofit can putt putt along with strong staff and an underperforming board and do “good enough.”  (But, please, remember:  I rail against accepting “good enough” as the standard for operations for nonprofits.  “Good enough” is underperforming, not to mention unethical, in my book.) 

It is those situations where an underperforming board harms the organization by its lack of action or taking the wrong actions that have caught my attention in the last several weeks and has me worried.

I recently got a request from a television station in Portland, OR to comment on how the board of  Mercy Corps, a global nonprofit headquartered there, handled allegations against one of its co-founders. 

In 1992, the 21-year-old daughter of Ellsworth Culver, one of the co-founders of Mercy Corps, reported to the other co-founder, the board chair, another board member and an original board member, that her father sexually and emotionally abused her from pre-school to high school.  They did an internal investigation and found her claims to be unsubstantiated.  Culver continued to serve the organization until his death in 2005. 

In 2018, with the support of her husband, Tania Culver Humphrey requested that the board revisit her original claims.  Once again, an internal investigation was done, which included an attorney board member, who participated in the original investigation.  Once again, they found insubstantial support for her claims.  The Oregonian, Portland’s daily paper, did its own investigation and found eight friends who corroborated all of the daughter’s claims, some even saying they had witnessed the abuse.  One came forward to say she too had been a victim.

How does a board make such wrong choices not once, but twice?  How can a board be so oblivious to the world around it?  In 1992, as a society, we were still sadly so dismissive of females’ claims of sexual abuse, still reluctant to acknowledge that someone who does such good work as starting a nonprofit could also be doing egregious things.  By 2018, the #Me Too movement had firmly taken hold, resulting in accused and investigated sexual abusers being removed from positions of power. 

Despite the groundswell that had swept the country, Mercy Corp’s second “investigation” didn’t include hiring an outside investigator to look into the claims.  It included at least one person who had been on the team that looked into the original claim more than 25 years before.  This “investigation” couldn’t even turn up any of the eight school friends of the victim that The Oregonian found.   

The mistakes here remind me of those made by some of the other well-publicized fiascos caused by Board’s not doing their job, deferring to an executive director, deferring to what would be easiest for them, as opposed to their legal—and moral—responsibility of doing what is best and right for the organization?   How, post Harvey Weinstein and his like-minded brothers, post #Me Too, does a nonprofit not take every allegation of sexual harassment, abuse, violence, etc. seriously?  Why hasn’t every nonprofit board reviewed its sexual harassment protocol, from policy on how to lodge a complaint, to how complaints are investigated, to the composition of the committee in charge of overseeing the investigation and making recommendations to the board?  How can any board think it a good idea (because it is nowhere on the good-better-best continuum of practice) to have board members serve continuously for almost 30? To have board members who are more loyal to an individual leader (or to self) than to the mission of the organization? 

How can anyone be a board member today without knowing for sure exactly what her/his legal, moral and best practices responsibilities are? 

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.