While reading the assigned article, Understanding the Behavior of Non-Profit Boards of Directors: A Theory-Based Approach, by Judith L. Miller-Millesen (Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 2003 – SAGE), I was intrigued by the idea of resource dependency theory and the potential clash between organizational and public (specifically funder) values. As discussed in the May 19 class, 501-c3s can exist for a multitude of reasons. Often, the organizations fill a niche which some members of society may rabidly support (ie: PETA – pun intended), while others soundly denounce. Generally, the issue is fairly clear cut and defined by the purpose statement in the bylaws of incorporation. For example, if I were to start a 501-c3 with the express intent to rid the world of puppies (using a spin on the example from class), my organization’s supporters and detractors would be clearly defined from the genesis. Likely, I would have very few supporters (generally the cat-lover ilk) and an instant host of pitchfork and noose-wielding enemies. Similarly, corporate sponsorship would run like the wind and I wouldn’t hold my breath on getting any government funding (though I often marvel at some programs my tax dollars ultimately support as it is…). The point is, via my clear and albeit fiendish purpose, my line in the sand will have clearly identified (rather, limited) my resource base. No amount of groveling will convince Bill Gates to toss any cabbage my way, even if I convince his mother to sit on my board.
Let’s put my callous disregard for puppies out of our minds and consider now another corporation, one with the undeniable impact of a purpose statement that rings of truth, integrity, honesty and the American way. What fool would argue with words such as “patriotism, courage, self-reliance and kindred virtues?” What potential contributor wouldn’t support such a fine assemblage? This is America damn-it – get with the program. Can you not hear that bell ringing? Open your wallet Bill, or I’m going over to the dark side and nibble on an apple. Let’s then assume that the organization waving this banner was chartered in say, 1915, and further, it grew stronger through the trials of two world wars, the great depression, the cold war, civil rights and Woodstock culminating in a collective historical membership of more than 110 million Americans.
Fast forward to 1993. Boy, is-times-a-changin’. Included the charter with all the other undeniable expressions of baseball and apple pie are reference to County, moral virtue and duty to God. Wait a minute.. I know that the allusion to God means having my butt in the pew on Sunday and doing the right thing, but what about that moral virtue thing?.. How is that any different? What exactly does that mean? Does that cover, like, sexual orientation? Oh yes it does. To be a member of this organization, you need to be squeaky straight. Until the early ‘90’s, there was no issue with discrimination of any sort. In fact, the group specifically excluded females altogether (if you don’t count den mothers..). It was only when gays started really coming out of the closet when things got sticky with the Boy Scouts. At this point, they needed to either draw their line in the sand and put up the ramparts, or invite everyone to the party. They chose the former and it’s been a struggle ever since.
Getting back to the focus of my point (remember resource dependence theory?), I think that some 501c3’s get caught in traps that they could not have foreseen at the time of their original charter. Many of these issues may in fact boil down to the definition (as defined by the legislature and/or the U.S. Supreme Court) of discrimination, whether it is gender, color, national origin, or sexual orientation. In 1915, I imagine that that the gay closest was just a shade darker than it is today. Acceptance of intolerance was almost certainly the norm. Today, a spotlight is beaming in and the BSA finds itself under heavy pressure from both sides of the issue. In one corner is the “government” (ie: the City of Philadelphia, which essentially decided to start charging the local BSA chapter $200,000 annually to lease operational space) and longtime supporters such as Levi Strauss and Wells Fargo, which have pulled all funding support. In the other corner are the faith-based organizations such as the Moorman and Catholic Churches which have been closely aligned with the BSA since the organization’s inception and have openly denounced homosexuality (though I think I recall the Pope recently making some statements to the contrary). Any sign of weakness on this issue and the faith-based community will likely drop the scouts in favor other youth programs more closely aligned with their values. The message, written in cold, hard green, is clear on both fronts – My way or the highway. In the case of this hotly debated social issue, there seems to be little middle ground. Thus, there is little opportunity for “boundary spanning”. You’re either in or you’re out and the financial implications are enormous.
So far, the BSA has held its ground with regard to denying gays, whether scouts or adult leaders, membership. It has been a costly battle of values. To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has sided with the Scouts by a narrow margin. Whether, or how long the organization can resist will likely depend on the will of its financial supporters. Similarly, and unless the Supreme Court revisits the issue with a differing result, the ultimate decision will come from the BSA Board, which must ultimately decide when and if there is a tipping point with regard to organizational survival.
If you are interested in checking it out further, here are a few sites from which I gleaned some info.