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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