A Nose for Trouble

on in Nonprofit
I’ve been following the Susan G. Komen Foundation debacle, as I’m sure everyone concerned with nonprofit governance has been. There’s been millions of words cast into the blogosphere about it, but the failure I’m thinking about has to do with the board’s job to sniff out trouble – to act as a brake on staff’s impulse to fix a problem with an immediate solution…that seems reasonable at the time.

Okay, here’s what I mean.

Laying aside the failure of the Komen Foundation’s value judgments – and the wrongheadedness of those value assumptions are, I admit, hard to put aside – the Komen Foundation’s leadership made a series of decisions based on a spectacular misreading of public temperament. To wit, if you can believe the backpedaling as the decision was reversed:

1) They thought that hiring an avowed partisan political figure (Karen Handel) would help them make headway in state Republican administrations (and goodness knows, there’s plenty of those) – but not affect their policies otherwise

2) They thought that including Planned Parenthood among their grantees was causing more controversy than would casting Planned Parenthood adrift

3) They thought that a decision of this magnitude could be released unnoticed

Wow.

And those are just some of the more egregious decisions they made along the way that seem to make no sense from a “What were they thinking?” smack-on-the-head, what-planet-are-they-living-on perspective.

In retrospect.

But isn’t that what the Board of Directors is for – to provide that retrospect in more-or-less real time – to serve as a brake on staff assumptions, be a sounding board, give feedback, all those other Governance 101 principles?

Or, in other words – to have a “nose for trouble” and bring the community’s perspective to decisions that make a whole lot of sense (OK, some sense) from a narrow, immediate, running-the-store stance?

Here’s another example of that “nose for trouble” real-world board perspective, from my own board service.

I’m chair of a arts community center with a flourishing afterschool music and arts program. So flourishing that during the prime hours of 3-6 pm, every inch of space in the school is booked, even to the extent that offices are commandeered for violin lessons, there’s a piano tucked into the staff lounge, etc. Get more space – you say – well we did that, and other than 3-6 pm Monday-Thursday we’ve got plenty of room to grow.

Under a mandate from the board to squeeze out more earned revenue wherever we were leaving money on the table, the staff came up with the idea of “value pricing” the time of the lessons. In other words, during prime time, lessons would cost more. Makes sense, from a business perspective…

But from a community-relations perspective, a potential disaster! Warning bells went off in my head: “Rich kids get preference for afterschool program, poor kids have to miss dinner to learn” – newspaper headlines like that. I voiced my concern at a board meeting, and we decided to table the solution for now – and to run it by a cross section of the community if we did decide to institute it someday, to see if the firestorm I was afraid of would erupt or if it would be a yawner (as in “Sure, do what you can do to increase your revenue as long as there’s space somewhere for all our children to learn.”)

Where were those warning bells among the Susan G. Komen Foundation board members?

Or were they so blinded with admiration for a founder that’d taken the organization from a promise 20 years ago to a fundraising juggernaut that’s generated over $1.9 billion…that they ignored what their common sense – their nose for trouble – told them?
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