Eric_W's Reviews > Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU

Worst Instincts by Wendy Kaminer
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's review
Oct 15, 09

it was amazing
bookshelves: current-affairs
Read in October, 2009

I've had the pleasure (?) of serving on several non-profit boards, mostly related to libraries and library systems or college associations. As I have told my daughter several times when she complains about a board member, boards see the world differently than an employee, and boards have very different responsibilities than employees. The major role for the board is to hire and fire the executive director. When trust breaks down between the board and the executive director, a board has no choice but to hire a new one. In the case of Romero versus his board described in this book, Kaminer describes not only a break between several members of the board and their executive director, but a profound disagreement among board members themselves over basic principles of the organization.

"When a not-for-profit group idealizes itself , regarding its own rectitudes a fact, not a contingency, it presumes to embody an essential, altruistic, if not sacred, mission, and criticizing the group becomes the equivalent of criticizing or betraying its great cause. Then members, unwilling to leave the group will find ways to love it, rationalizing felonies as well as misdemeanors." (The Catholic church's unwillingness to face the implications of the priest pedophile scandal springs to mind.)

It has been my observation that organizations formed to promote idealistic principles have a cohesion that works very well until the need for a professional manager becomes inherent because of the increased work load of that organization. The choice of the new director is crucial because if the ED doesn't necessarily share those original ideals, or doesn't come from the ranks of the members, there tends to be a shift over time in the goals of that association. Now the focus is on keeping the organization going (gotta pay the ED's salary and infrastructure, after all) and raising money to fund the infrastructure (which, in order to increase the ED's power base, must necessarily grow.)

Increasing wealth for the ACLU became an issue as well during the Bush years. "I doubt that many members ever considered the relevance of widely publicized governance failures [Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom all occured around the time:] by corporate boards to their own roles as fiduciaries. The ACLU board would not, or could not, seriously entertain the notion that its leaders might be as likely to abuse power as the leaders of multi-billion dollar corporations, absent substantial checks on their behavior."

The problems began with an agreement signed by the new executive director accepting a grant from the Ford Foundation that included the general rider prohibiting any organization accepting a grant from promoting, or engaging in "violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state." i.e. a restriction on political advocacy.. Now most people would not think much of that but those passionate in support of speech would not want to sign anything that could potentially restrict speech. Romero's mistake was that he didn't inform the board of this rider. Some colleges and universities opposed the rider and when it became know the ACLU had accepted it, the proverbial vigaro hit the mix-master. And, of course, the ACLU executive board wanted the money. Furthermore, Romero hid from the board his role in helping to formulate the statement. Tsk, tsk. Then, to make things worse, Romero signed an agreement to stay on the Combined Federal Campaign program, which netted $500,000 per year, but which required that the ACLU would agree not to hire anyone on a federal watch list. The vigaro had now morphed into shit.

It's hard to know what to make of this book. Kaminer presents what is undoubtedly a very biased view of events (note that I do not see bias as a negative, especially if the biased individual is correct.) Her attitude is that the other board members were sheep following a goat and she discusses Solomon Ashe's famous study of conformity to indicate how easy it is for people in a group to call "white, black," something they would never do as individuals, in order too go along with the group. But it's also true that there are people out there, professional gadflies, if you will, who delight in being the resident antagonist ad skeptic (disclaimer: it's a role I often enjoy myself.) The ACLU prides itself on being non-conformist with regard to the outside world, yet Kaminer suggests a substantial amount of comfort is acquired by conforming to an internal majority.

Kaminer does make a persuasive case for ideological impurity and myopia at the ACLU. It's just hard to tell to what degree she is right. On the other hand, the book provides some valuable insights into organizational behavior, and I recommend it highly for that reason if nothing else. There is, in organizations, an "expansive capacity for self-deception of people immersed in systems predicated on deceptive images of perfection that repel all suggestions of failure." Remember the Corvair and the o-rings of the Challenger?

This book should be required reading for prospective non-profit board members.

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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Yep, I contribute occasionally to a charity and all I think I'm doing is paying for the steady stream of begging letters they send me.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

La la la la la - I can't hear you.

No, only kidding. I love this review, but mostly because I feel uneasy and sad about the whole thing. I worked for a non-profit for a while, as nothing near as fancy as the ED, and the problem I had was that we were expected to work for shit with a smile, because we were working for a noble cause. This quote gave me chills: "When a not-for-profit group idealizes itself, regarding its own rectitudes a fact, not a contingency, it presumes to embody an essential, altruistic, if not sacred, mission, and criticizing the group becomes the equivalent of criticizing or betraying its great cause."

message 3: by Wealhtheow (new)

Wealhtheow Ceridwen, that's the quote that struck me, too.

message 4: by [deleted user] (last edited Oct 16, 2009 08:21AM) (new)

As a (very insignificant but regular) donor to the ACLU, I was very disturbed by this story when it broke. But then I started thinking (i.e., extrapolating) about the improprieties that undoubtedly go on at so many organizations that I 'trust.' (A modified trust, you understand -- meaning I am an increment less cynical about them than I would otherwise be.) And then finally that old feeling of exasperation and impotence settles in. (Sometimes I have to fight the urge to crave ignorance.)

Great review, Eric.

Eric_W I fear that what happened at the ACLU (and I'm a loyal member, too) is endemic to the way organizations evolve. I've identified 5 stages: 1. idealism and enthusiasm, lots of volunteer participation; 2. the workload becomes too much for the volunteers so an executive director is hired; 3. the executive director obviously needs a power base so he/she insists on the need for an administrative assistant; 4. what good is an administrative assistant without a secretary? And now they need bigger offices; 5. the budget begins to grow so the focus of the board is now raising money not for the original mission but to keep the organizational structure functioning. Voila! the focus of the board is different, the mission has been changed, and the original members gradually lose faith or give up or retire or die.

I've seen this process at work over and over. Perhaps we need a sunset clause for organizations.

Eric_W Elizabeth wrote: "This happens in corporations too. You'll see a small/mid-size firm that is very focused on generating revenue and they keep the overhead very low. Then they start growing, and it seemingly takes mo..."

You are absolutely correct and I wasn't trying to pick on non-profits. It's the only experience I have. I suspect one difference might be stockholder oversight in a for-profit, although given what we have witnessed in the past year, I suspect that's illusory as well.

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