Fast Company

Penn State, And How Nonprofit Boards Will Shape Up In The Wake Of Scandal

To begin with, many of you did plenty. If you’re reading this post, then it’s likely that you’re active in social media. Public attention to recent nonprofit board scandals, as well as robust participation via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media has been influential in the cases of Penn State, University of Virginia, and the Komen Foundation. There were financial and reputational consequences for organizations led by people who made bad decisions.

Beyond these three cases, you are having an exponential impact because two messages are loud and clear: 1) Boards of nonprofit organizations can no longer be secretive about the ways in which they are handling their responsibilities; there will be transparency, and 2) Boards are being held responsible to act with integrity, for the purpose of the mission, in the best interests of the people whom they serve; boards will be held accountable.

For many of us who have served on and worked with boards for over two decades, we eagerly welcome these newly heightened levels of transparency and accountability. For too long, “old school” funders and board members have shuttered themselves behind closed doors and been complacent about board apathy and dysfunctional practices.

Here’s what you’ve done to alert nonprofit boards that it’s no longer business as usual:

  1. Raised public awareness that the boards of directors of nonprofits--global, national, and regional organizations, including universities and healthcare institutions--have the authority, power, and responsibility to ensure the integrity of the organization in achieving its mission.
  2. Held organizations accountable by asking tough questions, and expressing your dissatisfaction upon learning that board members have neglected their duties, even potentially sitting idly by while children were being abused.
  3. Shifted your financial contributions from one organization to another when you disagreed with a shift in board policies, or even the reckless way in which the board might have made key decisions.

Here’s why it matters that you’ve engaged in this public discussion about boards:

  1. Boards are on notice that if they neglect their duties in putting the mission and integrity of the organization above all, they are likely to be exposed. As a result, boards will no longer be able to stifle dissent and discussion; board members will be more emboldened to ask the questions that need to be asked; and boards will be more conscientious, deliberate, and thoughtful about fulfilling their responsibilities.
  2. More funders and donors will ask questions about how the boards function at their grantee organizations.
  3. Board members, funders, donors, and board consultants will improve boards by focusing on: board composition, leadership, governance practices, structure, process, and most importantly, ethics and fiduciary responsibilities.

Here’s what you can do to further advance the momentum for better boards:

  1. Continue to be attentive to what happens in nonprofit board rooms in the news, among the organizations that your company funds, and where you make contributions.
  2. Continue to engage in the discussions via social media.
  3. Consider joining a nonprofit board yourself. It’s likely that you have professional skills and expertise, as well as perspectives from your personal experience that will be valuable in helping to advance a nonprofit in achieving its mission. Here are factors to consider in terms of your being ready to join a board, choose a board, find a board that fits, and benefit from the experience.

NGOs and nonprofits address issues of poverty, education, renewable natural resources, healthcare, housing, social justice, human rights, jobs, economic development, and arts and culture, among other things. Boards have the ultimate authority to ensure that these organizations use their resources as intended by donors, governments, and other funders to achieve their missions for a better world.

With your attention to governance and nonprofits, you are helping to ensure that boards fulfill their responsibilities in helping to build a better world.

[Image: Flickr user Mengjie Jo]

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