Serving as a Warning to Others; Lessons in Governance

November 21, 2011

It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.” It’s a terrible role to play, but one that others should bother to learn from, and it’s the theme of a recent post by Lisa Chiu on the Chronicles of Philanthropy with a focus on what we can learn from the the Second Mile charity whose founder, Jerry Sandusky, is now infamous. It is worth taking a look at what the charity could have done differently that might have a different result now that it is considering shutting its doors.

The article points out a few of the primary weaknesses at the charity and they all relate to governance. The article quotes Deborah Davidson, a vice president at BoardSource as noting that  Second Mile suffers from “founder’s syndrome“, which she defines as when the person who created the charity wields inordinate influence to the point that the board may be unwilling to question the individual. In the case of Second Mile, its by-laws lists Mr. Sandusky as an officer, cementing his authority and term for life.

In keeping with the mentality of not questioning authority, Second Mile had no whistle-blower policyin place. The article quotes Matthew Downey, program director at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy, as noting “even if the policy never gets used, it sets a culture in the organization that you can speak up and your job won’t come into jeopardy.”

The third problem in governance that Ms. Chiu notes Second Mile as having is too many board members. That may be counter to initial intuition but it makes sense that too many members results in an environment susceptible to “group-think” and a general sense of lack of responsibility because surely someone else will take care of it.

Having an under-performing, or worse, a scandal producing person entrenched high up in an organization undermines the organization’s mission and can lead to serious operational problems. Governance of any charity should include conversations about how to ensure that the mission comes first and can continue to serve its purpose above and beyond any personalities that get attached to it.