By Will Coggin
Nonprofit employees are willing to make sacrifices, such as accepting salaries below what’s available in the private sector, so that they can work towards a noble cause. But recently many have faced a barrier they shouldn’t: hostile workplaces enabled by feeble boards of directors who are accountable to essentially no one.
In the most recent scandal, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization founded to fight bigotry, has been rocked by allegations of racism and sexism within the nonprofit. The avalanche of allegations began with the resignation letter of Meridith Horton, a senior attorney who cited unfair treatment of women and people of color within the organization. As the resignation letter became public, more and more people found courage and voiced their personal experiences of sexual harassment and racism within the organization.
It wasn’t just the public that was shocked. Somehow SPLC’s board chair found it to be “eye opening” when the news broke that Morris Dees, SPLC’s founder, had fostered a culture the organization had so proudly fought against. Where has the board been all this time?
In fact, issues have persisted for decades in the SPLC world. In 1994, the Montgomery Advertiser ran an eight-part series on the organization’s racial woes. Focusing on the trend of African Americans employed in lower level positions with little representation in managerial roles. The series’ analysis of why this occurred pointed to the board’s history of being composed of friends and associates of Dees--people who would put Dees over the charity and its mission.
Unaccountable and untrustworthy charity boards have become a focal point in the #metoo era. The Humane Society of the United States’ (HSUS) board originally gave a vote of confidence to its CEO Wayne Pacelle after he had been accused of sexual harassment by several women at the not-for-profit. The board even voted to end an internal investigation into him after some of the allegations became public. It wasn’t until staff and donors protested that Pacelle resigned.
The charity leadership’s behavior since has been an exercise in obfuscation and opacity. It took a month for the charity to even release a statement of contrition. Then the leadership announced a vague “reconciliation process.” After a year, HSUS announced the process was over — with little details made public.
Consider that the same board members who voted to keep the CEO were overseeing the “reconciliation” and it begins to make sense. The process seems little more than a way to ward off lawsuits and bad PR — not to be transparent and accountable to donors and the public.
The Wounded Warrior Project is an example of some positive steps to look for. The charity was the subject of outrage after it emerged that it was wasting millions on conferences and five-star resorts — $26 million in 2014, to be exact.
The board fired the CEO and another top executive, but that in and by itself isn’t good enough. After all, board members have a fiscal responsibility and duty to review budgets and know, or should know, how donor money is spent. Fortunately, records show the majority of the board members from 2014 are no longer at the charity.
Donors should still be careful, however, and review ratings from reputable charity evaluators to see if a charity has truly reformed its spending practices.
That’s especially vital because many bad charities (and their boards) are operating today with a business-as-usual mentality. The respected evaluator CharityWatch gives over 40 percent of the cancer and veterans charities it rates a “D” or “F” grade. This is a reflection of the failure of leadership and their duties to donors.
Not-for-profits belong to no one and everyone. Ownership of a public charity is the general public — you and me. State Attorneys General have authority and oversight over charities, but sadly they are often reactive, not proactive.
So what’s a donor to do? In the modern day, where new allegations of harassment or wrongdoing at nonprofits occur at a higher frequency, it has become important now more than ever to pay closer attention. Do your research on charity evaluators and employee review sites.
Any charity with a harassment or other scandal should be treated with a “one strike” policy. If a group hasn’t been managed properly, there are plenty of other charities in a field that are more deserving.
The general public can begin the necessary change and hold leadership accountable with donations. Do not follow the Pied Piper down the wrong path, funding inequities and waiting for the authorities to act. Be the instrument of change, take charge and donate to charities whose leadership is held to a higher standard we are all be striving for. Your donation money talks!