This is not your father’s ACLU

The battle at the ACLU between the Board and Executive Director and staff and affiliates on the one hand, and a group of dissident ex-staff and Board members on the other, seems complex and difficult and high-stakes because it’s the ACLU, but it’s really just a classic dispute between people who understand nonprofit governance and people who don’t.  Because here’s the deal:

The organization belongs to the Board.  It can either back the Executive Director (as this one has) or fire him/her, but those are the only two choices–second-guessing of individual decisions is not an option, no matter how "middle ground" or "reasonable" that may seem.

An agency with which the Nonprofiteer is familiar had its Executive Director attacked by a Board member unhappy with various personnel decisions.  Unhappy Board member stirred up staff as well as other trustees, and even carried the battle into the press–sound familiar?  After a series of efforts by the Executive Director and Board President to placate the guy, the Nonprofiteer advised that they impeach him.  In that case, fortunately, the bylaws already provided that option.  It appears from the press coverage that the ACLU’s bylaws do not.  If they do, the agency should use them; if they don’t, it should adopt them immediately if not sooner.  This is not "suppression of free speech;" this is basic management.  Disagreement is a Board member’s right and responsibility, but obstruction is not.  Or, as it is written: Lead, follow or get out of the way.

The Nonprofiteer has also been a dissident Board member herself.  Recruited to serve on the governing body of what was advertised as "the city’s only rape hotline," she soon discovered that there was another rape hotline already in place, which for whatever reason(s) didn’t meet with the approval of the new agency’s founders.  After a number of Board meetings spent urging the staff to explore consolidation with the existing hotline, the Board split right down the middle between those who thought their job was to support the staff members who’d brought them in and those who thought their job was to create, or support, a rape hotline.  After much personal animosity (which you can almost smell in accounts of the ACLU case) the Nonprofiteer asked herself, "If I had a client whose leaders were forever struggling with a Board member who just wouldn’t get with the program, what would I suggest?"  The answer was "I’d suggest that the dissident member leave the Board," and that’s what she did. 

One can’t help wondering to what extent the whole ACLU opera owes its origin to the separation pangs of the previous Executive Director.  Breaking up is, after all, hard to do.  But just as Ira Glasser expected and got the ACLU Board’s backing, so should Anthony Romero.  Staff comes and goes but the organization–run by the Board, not by concerned kibbitzers–goes on.


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