There’s been much ado about the Boy Scout’s potentially overturning its policy of admitting gay scouts and scout leaders. The executive committee took the very brave position today of pushing the decision off until their annual meeting in May. It’s complicated, they said. Readers of this blog have probably already inferred my reaction to a statement like that! It isn’t complicated, you’re making it complicated, but finding a rationale to continue this immoral practice that puts the organization out of the mainstream of American life will take some creative thinking, I suppose. (Cass Sunstein does a great job here of explaining why the Boys Scouts position of banning gays is immoral and not unconstitutional.)
But I am going to put all of those issues aside to comment here today about one aspect of the story about the Boy Scout’s deliberations that I find hard to swallow. When I read about the board meeting the other day, this sentence jumped out at me:
The meeting at a hotel near Boy Scouts headquarters in Irving, Texas, is closed to the public.
A few years ago, I was researching the legal requirements for nonprofit boards; what were they required to make public (like tax returns) and what could they choose to keep private (like personnel records). I went right to the source, BoardSource that is, and learned that board meetings and minutes do not have to be made public – not even upon request. The exceptions are organizations receiving a certain amount of direct public funding. But all nonprofit organization receive public support – that’s what being tax exempt adds up to – one, big public subsidy for work that provides a public good. Why should boards hide behind closed doors? And even if they do, why should the minutes of those meetings also be hidden? Anyone who has spent five minutes in a board room knows that discussions about personnel are taken up in executive session where minutes aren’t taken. Why even require minutes, then? Of course, boards could choose to meet in public and make their minutes available.
Cass Sunstein’s terrific article has a role in this discussion of boards as well. Even if it isn’t required by law, taking governance out from behind the fortress walls is the right thing to do. What are boards hiding from? Critics and criticism – better to hear it directly than to hear it online somewhere else. Are they concerned that board members will not be open and forthright in their comments. That’s their job! It would be great if a critical mass of nonprofit organizations took a stand on this and decided to hold all of their board meetings in public and to post their minutes online.
Governance needs sunlight! Who is willing to step up to the plate?