THE BLOG
07/08/2014 02:15 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2014

Do as I Say, Not as I Do?

I've been thinking a lot about the connections between organizational values and actions, especially this week as we prepare for a staff retreat to discuss and recommit to the values at the core of our work at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. In a previous post, I shared examples of foundations in the GEO community that are making sure their values are visible in everything they do.

GEO members are committed to making changes in their own work that will enable their grantees and communities to grow stronger. One basic way GEO members do this is by embodying what they expect of their grantees. Though positive examples abound, I am dismayed when I discover stark examples where not only is a foundation doing things it would never tolerate from a grantee, but the practices themselves compromise the foundation's very ability to make progress on its mission.

A few weeks ago, the three trustees of the Otto Bremer Foundation reorganized the foundation, eliminating the position of a staff executive director with deep expertise in nonprofits in favor of making themselves "co-CEOs." The trustees each actually inherited the position from a parent, which, in itself, is an odd approach to board succession that raises a host of potential concerns. Both circumstances are unusual; however, the pertinent question is: Would the foundation give a grant to a nonprofit that had done the same?

The decision to reorganize then brought to light a trustee compensation arrangement that is completely out of scale with sector practice. The board members of nearly all nonprofits and the vast majority of foundations, including those that are much larger, more complex and far reaching, serve with no compensation at all. Those who are compensated receive a median of $24,000 per year according to a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy survey. However, the foundation's three trustees received a total of $1,307,608 in 2013. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has even called for an investigation by the Attorney General of Minnesota, where the foundation is located. Again, would the Otto Bremer Foundation give a grant to a nonprofit that compensated trustees $400,000 each?

Trust is the most important currency in the relationship between grantmakers, their grantees and communities. Engaging in compensation practices that are so far outside of the norm tarnishes that trust. The situation at the Otto Bremer Foundation has the potential for even farther-reaching repercussions: It could damage the public's trust in foundations overall.

This situation is especially disappointing because the Otto Bremer Foundation is a GEO member. I admire much about the foundation's work. Through its grantmaking programs, the organization demonstrates a true understanding of the needs of the communities it serves and prioritizes community led-solutions. In its youth homelessness work, the foundation helped grantees adopt world class learning and evaluation practices that are making a profound difference in the lives of kids. Various members of the Otto Bremer Foundation staff have engaged in the GEO community over the years and have shown themselves to be thoughtful, earnest people.

Considering the question of what's in the best interest of the foundation's mission and the communities it serves will provide a compelling argument for the trustees to change the way they are currently operating. Defending an outrageous compensation policy would extend the damage that is already being done to the Otto Bremer Foundation's core work and reputation in the community. It is my hope that this concern carries the day and that the trustees immediately revise their compensation practices to bring them in line with industry norms.

Situations like this one can prompt important conversations about the alignment (or lack thereof) between an organization's mission, values and practices. Are there ways in which your practices and values might be misaligned? What might you do to explore that question with your board and staff?