Sweet Briar College #BoardFail

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.47.28 AMSweet Briar College, a 114 year-old women’s college in rural Virginia, announced its closing due to financial difficulties. According to its website, the board voted to close the college on February 28th — and announced it to the world via press release on March 3rd, before telling faculty, students and alumnae.

The Sweet Briar board did everything they thought they were supposed to do. They examined the problem, ran through scenarios like merging with other colleges or becoming co-ed and came to the conclusion that the only pathway for them was to close the college. And that’s the problem. Their idea of what they are supposed to do is outdated and an abuse of Matterness by purposefully disempowering their key constituents as smart, generous, creative people capable of helping to solve problems.

This board, like so many other nonprofit boards, thought their job was to try to solve every problem in secret behind closed doors. They had been wrestling with serious financial difficulties for years without having open and honest conversations with students, faculty, parents and alumnae about the problems and asking for help. I don’t mean asking for money, I mean asking for help a community-wide strategy to either close or remain open. Instead, the board went through a series of options behind closed doors and announced their decision to close. Of course, there has been a huge backlash from people are who passionate supporters of the college and were taken by surprise by the sudden-feeling decision of the board.

One person interviews in the Times article said, “I understand that liberal arts colleges are struggling,” she said. Still, she said, the board “just threw in the towel.” This is the heart of the problem. No one believes that the Sweet Briar took this decision lightly, however, since no one on the outside was privy to the discussions or decision-making process of the board, the board now faces a tidal wave of anger, disbelief and protest. (Here is the inevitable Save Sweet Briar site.)

Why do boards continue to assume that it is their job to work in secret? Their job, they believe, is to review financial statements, make donations and ask others to do the same, and for gosh sakes, keep things quiet! This expectation is reinforced by the clubby feel of boards- friends of friends are invited to be board members and the last thing most people want to do in such a collegial atmosphere is make waves. Because board members come to their jobs believing that it is expecting, and prudent and smart, to work alone behind closed doors. This is a leadership choice not a necessity for boards; and a bad, outdated choice.

Every time a scandal erupts at a nonprofit organization, look at the board and how it operates. It is likely you will find an opaque culture of secretiveness. The scandal at Marlborough High School in Los Angeles, an elite prep school, is in crisis now because the board chair didn’t believe he needed to share an accusation of pedophilia with the larger board. And I won’t even begin to talk about the cheating culture of sports in higher education!

If nonprofit boards cannot bring themselves to open up their procedures and decision-making, then new rules are necessary to help them begin the process. I propose that nonprofit boards be required to post online:

  • Real-time financials online. The same P&L statements and balance sheets shared with the board should also be posted online with the agenda for board meetings.
  • Real-time video streaming of board meetings.
  • Board minutes

This is just a start. All board rooms, but at least and in particular nonprofit board rooms, need to throw their windows and doors open. If they think that transparency will make their life harder, they should consider how much harder their life will be when their secretiveness leads to a crisis down the road.

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Allison Fine

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