5 Ways Nonprofits Can Mitigate Potential Backlash Related To Their Boards and Wealthy Donors

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September 9, 2019


Timothy J. McClimon, Senior Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility

After recent high-profile controversies involving nonprofit organizations and the political views of their board members and wealthy donors, many charities find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

With government funding either stagnant or declining, demand for services increasing, and costs rising, many nonprofits are increasingly reliant on the treasures of wealthy individuals and their foundations to support basic services, programs and overhead. And, they’re even more dependent on these individuals to serve as board members, often with large “give or get” requirements that are simply out of reach for the average citizen and constituent.

Witness some widely publicized examples:

  • After it was revealed that real estate developer and Shed board member Stephen Ross was hosting a private fundraiser to support President Trump’s re-election campaign, two artists who collaborated on a project on view at the Shed (the new performing arts center at Hudson Yards in New York) withdrew their work in protest of the event.
  • Fashion designers Rag & Bone and Prabal Gurung pulled their planned runway shows from the Shed where they were set to present their spring 2020 collections.
  • Several artists withdrew their work from the Whitney Biennial because of the presence of Warren Kanders, CEO of military supplier Safariland, on its board of directors. It was reports that Safariland’s tear-gas grenades had been used against migrants at the United States-Mexico border that sparked the protests. (Kanders has since resigned from the Whitney board.)
  • Vassar College, God’s Love We Deliver, Safe Horizon and the Joyful Heart Foundation endured negative publicity over their mutual board member, Linda Fairstein, former head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office sex crimes unit who prosecuted the Central Park Five, after Netflix streamed a mini-series on the case. (Fairstein has since resigned from these boards.)
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art saw protests after it accepted $65 million from the late billionaire and conservative philanthropist David Koch to renovate the entrance to the museum. The focus of their protests was Koch’s stance against climate change.

What can nonprofits do to avoid or mitigate these kinds of disruptions?

  • Ensure that your organization has a mission, vision and values statement that is clear about your culture and tolerance for differing points of view. Share it with your prospective board members and major donors, and ask that they acknowledge it.
  • Research your prospective board members and major donors in the same way that you would check on prospective staff members. Google them. Check out social media. What do people write about them, post about them, share about them? Are these individuals and institutions with which you want to be affiliated?
  • Re-examine your financial “give or get” requirements. Do they need to apply to everyone on your board with equal weight? Are there other ways that less-wealthy individuals can contribute to the success of your organization besides financially?
  • Ensure that your board has representatives from the constituents that you serve. If you are an arts organization, are there artists on your board? If you’re an education institution, are there students? If a health organization, are there clients or patients?
  • Evaluate your board members annually. Are they meeting your expectations? Are they living up to the mission, vision and values of the organization? Are they contributing in ways that are beneficial to the organization besides your need for money?

With many foundations and government agencies calling for more diversity on nonprofit boards of directors, and the media increasing their scrutiny of nonprofits, now is a good time to re-examine your role as a public charity and re-affirm your commitment to the communities you serve. Your board members and major donors should be acting in ways that are consistent with your culture and values, and potential issues should be exposed and explored in a thoughtful and transparent manner.

While no one wants to see nonprofit organizations divided into “red” and “blue” groups, nonprofits can no longer hide behind a veil of secrecy and obliviousness. Everyone associated with your institution is now fair game for social and mainstream media, and the faster nonprofit leaders learn to handle these potential periods of backlash, the more sustainable and successful their organizations will be.

Portions of this blog post first appeared on Forbes.

If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

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