Nonprofit Follies: Field Museum Cassandras Ignored

Cassandra, the always-ignored prophetess of doom, shows up frequently on nonprofit Boards, and apparently took her turn recently at the Field Museum. This fine article by Heather Gillers reveals that trustees squeezed off the Board sounded the alarm about the Field's pattern of spending without sufficient fundraising and of selling off pieces of the collection and using the proceeds to cover operating expenses, an absolute no-no in the museum world.  More, the article shows how casually the ex-trustees' warnings were dismissed as the grumblings of troublemakers--and how they still are being so dismissed.

The Field story illustrates a larger difficulty.  Nonprofit Boards depend on collegiality for their smooth operation.  This places a premium on not rocking the boat, and boat-rockers are often isolated and occasionally out-and-out fired.  But in the nonprofit sector as in business, a genuine whistleblower is invaluable, helping to keep the organization on the straight and narrow.  Here a trio of Board members became personae non grata simply by identifying questionable management practices, and as is often the case the Board chose to "correct" the Board's membership rather than correct the practices.

[Two of the three whistleblowers are married to each other.  Boards should avoid recruiting husband-and-wife teams at all costs: any couple is half as efficient and twice as much trouble as any other Board participant.  This is true even though the couple in this case identified a real problem, because their couple-dom made it easier to belittle their concerns.]

The take-away?  That nonprofit Board members who raise substantive concerns may be pains in the ass, but they're the kind of pains that warn you're sitting on a hot seat.  It's fine to dismiss them if they can't behave themselves--if they're rude or disruptive or prevent the Board from getting anything else done.  But whether or not they're dismissed, their warnings shouldn't be--and the primary focus of any investigation should be not to defend against accusations but to ascertain whether they're legitimate.

Perhaps these Board members erred in suggesting a "pattern of deception" when simple incompetence would have explained the same facts.  And perhaps the Field's staff and remaining Board would have responded more productively if they didn't feel threatened by legal action implicit in the claim of deception.  But feeling threatened isn't a reason to close your eyes to threats, and that seems to be what the museum did--and continues to do.

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  • Comment from Robin Colburn, Vice President at the Negaunee Foundation:

    The Tribune approached me for an interview with regard to the catastrophe that is unfolding at the Field Museum. Years ago, I saw the writing on the wall but was dismissed, as the museum's only interest in me was the substantial funding that my husband's foundation supplied. They had not counted on my having a brain and using it. I was active and vocal and certainly a thorn in their side.

    Well, the Chicago Tribune published the article without my interview, because I declined after mulling it over, contemplating the risks, and getting some very good advice from a former executive from the museum (who agreed with my opinion of the institution). The article, lacking my input, allowed the administration to "come out ahead," casting a negative pall on the "whistle-blowers." In fact, the three parties mentioned are dismissed as though they were merely retaliatory folks with "an ax to grind." I could not let that article stand like that; it seems to have diffused the outrage and the controversy over the current imbroglio at our beloved Chicago institution, and I think it is important to keep the current administration in the news and in the hot seat, or they will continue on their current path of destruction unwatched and uninterrupted -- that path being the dissolution of one of the finest teams of research scientists in the world.

    Here is a link to the article: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-met-field-museum-letter-20130605,0,5068199.story

    This is my comment at the bottom of the page in case it "disappears:"

    Robin Colburn · Vice President at The Negaunee Foundation
    as to the comment: "I just remember it as being a distraction caused by a few individuals," Kunkler said. "With that big a body, you're always going to have people say, 'I told you so,' with whatever ax to grind they have, and often (they are) people who are not part of the real board leadership." I say that is not true. I served on the board at the time and our foundation was a major supporter of the museum and I was a very concerned and involved board member. So many of us were afraid to step forward and stand out and suffer similar ridicule or criticism that was heaped upon the Higinbothams that it only appears that there were only a few who challenged the financial decisions of the "controlling faction" of the board. I do believe that Harlow Higinbotham was not reelected to the board because of his objection to the museum's push to sell the Catlin paintings. I declined a request to be interviewed by the Chicago Tribune because I, too, have been afraid to fall under the vindictive abuse of the Field Museum "insiders." There were many poor decisions made some time ago because a large majority of the board members treated the board as an expensive social club; a chance to network with others. I recall our board meetings consisting of food and candy and viewing the "vacation" slides of board members or presentations of research by some of the staff. All of that is well and good, but there was very little attention paid to the MANAGEMENT and operations of the museum. That was reserved for the Executive Committee, which is comprised of the chairpersons of the various committees. The establishment of that role, the chairperson, was carefully controlled by those in power. It was not always that way. In my earlier years on the board, there had to be a majority vote of a quorum to pass a resolution or change in the museum's practices. After the Catlin debacle, that power was taken away from the board, and the Executive Committee was granted the power of the vote of the board. This seems to me to have been yet another effort to weaken the authority of board members and tightly control the helm of the faltering organization. I resigned in frustration -- with the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002, I realized I was in a position of culpability without any say or control whatsoever as to the decisions made with regard to the finances or other issues concerning operations. We continue to support the museum at a substantial level. I believe in the science. I do not believe in the management.

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