I've just learned who my worst nightmare could be if I got on her wrong side: Wendy Kaminer.
First, let me be clear. Wendy is extremely bright and very articulate. And.....very angry. Well, maybe some of her anger has diminished since she first completed Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. But in this book, there is no shortage of grumpiness about a number of issues, all of which center around the ACLU Board of Directors and the ACLU Executive Director.
Worst Instinctsis one former ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) board member's experience in a poor functioning nonprofit board. From her description, this is a board where relationships matter more than questionable business practices. And, even more significant, this is a board where group solidarity matters more than individual conscience. This point is of course the "big" rub when the subject of such behavior is focused on an organization whose fundamental values center around individual conscience.
Ms. Gamine is preachy throughout the book but intertwined with her preachiness are some examples of nonprofit board and executive behavior that would surely provide a study group or conference work group with the fodder for developing universal policies on the nature of the fiduciary duties of care, loyalty and obedience.
So, rather than say much more, I'll leave you with some selected quotes that will help us think about nonprofit governance:
The board meets four times a year and necessarily delegates routine governance responsibilities to an eleven-person executive committee and four general counsels. ...the integrity of this system depends on the integrity of individual leaders and their accountability to informed, un-intimidated followers. ....the centralization of power inevitability increases the abuse of power, especially when its unchecked.
Many or our battles involved internal governance matters, which aroused relatively little interest, even internally. (see page 14-15 for the complete list).
(quoted from Yale prof, Jeffrey Sonnefeld) Effective groups operate in a virtuous cycle of respect, trust, and candor that can be broken at any point. One of the most common breaks occurs when the CEO doesn't trust the board enough to share information. (Note from me -- our practice recognizes this CEO trust issue as a two-way street that still requires serious board review and action)
In the nonprofit world, too, dishonest or otherwise unprincipled behavior is likely to be ignored unless it involves money or, on occasion, sex.
The hesitancy of board leaders to assert their authority over a testy executive director is not atypical in the not-for-profit world, where it's often considered bad manners for boards to carry out too much oversight, where people tend to be less interest in governance than in supporting and identifying with a cause.
Nurturance effectively replaced oversight as the board's primary fiduciary responsibility; accountability, much less whistle-blowing, seemed practically akin to child abuse.
Boardroom pressure to conform even affects confident, securely high-status people who know better.