Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Real World Example Demonstrating Why Nonprofits' Mission Statements Are More Important Than The Almighty Dollar

I write, in this blog, about professional nonprofit best practices a lot.  Best practices are not anything written in stone or some pact that was galvanized by every professional nonprofit volunteer or employee swearing allegiance; but rather, best practices are simply either adhered to and practiced regularly - or not.  Usually whether best practices are conducted depends on what experience the nonprofit volunteer or employee has and what they know about how things are done and why they're done that way.

So, for this reason, I find great value in noting and following real world current events to both track what the community (at large) thinks or how it reacts to the situation (many times no one writes to the Editor when a paper mentions a local nonprofit's bookkeeper bilked the organization out of money).  On Thursday, though, I spotted a news item that I think is, at a minimum, informative and more than that, probably a good example of when and how a nonprofit can run into conflicts of interest when weighing the organization's very reason for existing and operating (its mission statement) against a donor's wishes.

On November 9, 2011 The New York Times published Parks Chief Blocked Plan For Grand Canyon Bottle Ban written by Felicity Barringer and it was carried, at least nationally, by news wire services.  Though you may not, I happen to value this nation's amazing and unmatched great outdoors.  My point in writing about this story, though, is not about the environmental issue (of which I am going to write my federal representatives about).  This story is interesting because last year, as the article states, " Weary of plastic litter, Grand Canyon National Park officials were in the final stages of imposing a ban on the sale of disposable water bottles in the Grand Canyon..." but the top federal parks official, Jon Jarvis decided against the ban because a major donor did not like it.  To quote The Times piece,"...Coca-Cola, which distributes water under the Dasani brand and has donated more than $13 million to the parks, had registered its concerns about the bottle ban through the foundation, and...the project was being tabled. His account was confirmed by park, foundation and company officials..."

If we look at Jarvis' decision objectively, we need to refer to the National Park Service's mission statement (as stated on their website)," promote and regulate the use of the...national parks...which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.".  Jarvis seems to have made a decision about Parks operations outside the scope of the National Park Service's mission statement.  This is not unheard of, by any means.  Sometimes nonprofit leadership makes decisions that are motivated by reasons outside of the organization's mission statement without any controversy.

The controversy, in Jarvis' decision, is that he did what one of the National Park Service's donors wanted which is in sharp contrast to the agency's own mission: it's reason for existing.  In fact, Jarvis was willing to ignore a good majority of the Park Service's purpose as stated it is clearly stated in the mission statement.  This is not my opinion, but rather, his action is in direct contrast to the purpose of the Park Service and this is discernible by the actual facts.  

Even still, perhaps you are saying to me, "well...we are in a recession and the Park Service could use all of the donors and donations it can retain".  This is true and this is not a small point. Coke and its subsidiaries are probably very generous partners with the Park Service as a donor. Jarvis may (I could not find any comment from him on this point) have decided to do what Coke wished irregardless of the Park Service's mission purpose because its own budget has been cut by Congress.  In fact, this may be the very crux of the situation.  These are tough times.  Yet, always, even in poor economic times, a nonprofit's leadership must decide what the organization stands for, what it will tolerate (with regard to the organization's own best interest and future ability to do its work) and what it can not abide.  Jarvis decided in this down economy to do what one of his big donors wanted.  So, perhaps now you are saying to me, "well...doesn't this kind of thing happen all of the time when a major donor helps a nonprofit build a new building, for instance, and wants naming rights for one of the new building's wings?".  This is also true.  Yes, this occurs. Usually, though, naming rights is an actual fundraising method used to help raise the funds for the new building (before the building is built and years in advance, while the fundraising for the new building to be is being planned out).

If we look at this situation considering nonprofit operations, from a purely professional practical point of view, the Park Service's leadership's decision to do what one of its major donors wanted despite the clearly described purpose of the Service, stated in its own mission statement, which contrasts with the purpose; this is not a good decision and not within best practices.  This can apply to any nonprofit in any similar situation and nonprofit leadership actually sometimes have to say to a donor (even a major donor), 'thank you but we have to return the check' (see my post, Is There Really A Grant That Our Organization May Not Take?).  Here's why:

__ No organization operates without referring to its mission statement.  Without the mission, the organization is a ship directionless in the night.  There is no guiding principle or reason the organization operates or even exists.  (This is why mission statements are of value).  When an organization does strategic planning, considered what new programs or services to implement, or weighs what its beneficiaries need and can receive from the nonprofit - only the mission statement clearly defines the organization and so this definition clarifies for the organization's leadership what should and should not be considered worth doing.  If a nonprofit, though, only refers to its mission statement in a cursory or even inconsistent manner then its leadership is likely not making decision based on the best interest of the organization's beneficiaries or the organization's own welfare (as stated, for instance, in the Sarbanes Oxley Act which all American nonprofit boards are required by law to uphold).  The best interest of the organization and its beneficiaries, as the law describes it, come before the interests of others (including donors).  How would the law know what the organization's best interest is?  The nonprofit, in order to be an official charity, per the IRS, files its mission statement (and must update it with the IRS if and when the mission statement is updated or changed in any way).  This is how clear the law is about the importance of the mission statement.

__ What should other donors or contributors of any kind (such as volunteers or community partners) think about the nonprofit that puts its beneficiaries second to the interests of one of the organization's major donors?  Why would you or I give to the Park Service, right now, if we agree with the organization's mission statement and see the purpose of the Parks exactly the same as it is stated in the Park Service's own mission statement?  We wouldn't right now and would, instead, divert that donation to another charity that will use the money in a manner that I am more comfortable - one in which I (a contributor) understands the organization is supposed to operate by looking at other potential recipient organizations' operations and weighing how consistent each other potential recipient organization's leadership make decisions or conduct operations with each organization's mission.  Donors are truly investors who want to see their money result in real positive outcomes as the donor understands the organization's goals to be (one way donors or anyone among the general public, outside the organization, does this is by looking at an organization's mission and its recent track record).

__ How much money does anyone or any corporation have to give in order to have sway over what the nonprofit does or does not do and why is that amount worth that kind of power over the organization's welfare and its beneficiaries' welfare?  Any nonprofit that is willing to do what a donor wants beyond the scope of the organization's mission, values, or purpose needs to seriously evaluate its own leadership and perhaps train those leaders in modern professional best practices, or even let them go.  Making decisions that do not proactively induce the organization's purpose or goals may be (and often actually is) an indication that someone at the top is either unaware of what professional best practices are and why, or does not care and is a dangerous liability to the organization's public image and future potential to raise any kind of support.  Is any donation worth this?

__ As of the date and time of my writing this post (10:30am PST 11/11/11) the Times states in its article that a law suit is now going to be brought forward, given Jarvis' decision.  How much money is it going to cost the Park Service to fight this court case, regain the general public's trust (who are the beneficiaries of the Park Service), regain donors' confidences that the agency operates according to its mission rather than the wishes of major donors, and fix this image issue through marketing and  public relations?  A lot.  How much money is the Park Service, then, spending to avoid its own purpose all because Coke gives so many thousands of dollars a year?  I bet more than whatever it is Coke donates.

I use this situation as an example to demonstrate why professional nonprofit best practices are just that - best practices.  They are not something someone somewhere comes up with and then beats over the head of others.  They are practices that many different nonprofits (of all sizes and ages) try (in different regions of the U.S. and world) and happen to be what work.  They are the most effective because they are repeatedly successful practices for any other nonprofit that adopts and conducts them.  The proof is in the outcome.  Let's watch what happens next in this current event.

December 15, 2011 Update:

April 3, 2013 Related Story: Mt. Rainier Moves to Ban Bottled Water, Big Bottle is Pissed

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