Callousness of a Nonprofit

The news was devastating, shocking and totally unexpected when it was made public on March 26, 2014. Five hundred and thirty employees were told that in 3 days they no longer would have employment -- they need not come to work.

For scores of employees, whose decades of dedication, service and loyalty - some in excess of 30 years --the news of the layoff and closing was more than they could handle. TV news and the print media recorded the discharged employees emotional reactions.

The employer that had provided the 3 day notice was not a "cold hearted, merciless and profit seeking" business corporation, which some have come to expect such insensitivity. It was a 129 year old nonprofit - Northern Berkshire Health, which up until a few weeks ago, operated an acute care hospital and hospice center, as well as several medical offices, in North Adams, Mass., 18 miles south of Bennington.

I have never observed such a callous and mean-spirited act, perpetrated upon the employees of a nonprofit, by its board of trustees -- until now. How tragic, to witness the actions of a few, impacting the lives of so many.

On March 31, 2014, in a letter to the editor of the Bennington Banner, Julia Bolton, Chairwoman of NBH's board of trustees wrote, "But whatever happens, we want to say -- plainly and sincerely - that we are profoundly grateful to everyone who has worked so hard and so effectively to support this organization's mission over the years, and we are particularly indebted to the hundreds of dedicated employees who - with remarkable skill and unflinching loyalty - have provided the highest quality healthcare to our community. You have every reason to be proud."

Bolton uses the words, sincerely, dedicated, skill, loyalty and quality. Her board's way of being "profoundly grateful," to the providers of such service - you have 3 days' to vacate the premises. Is it humanly possible to be more disingenuous? I am not unfamiliar with the difficulties that our rural hospitals face. I had 15 years of board experience with a 330-bed acute care hospital - and experienced the difficult decision of closing an affiliated hospital - which had been accomplished in the absence of callousness.

I am observing, all too often, how the once clear and defined distinction, between a nonprofit entity and a commercial (for profit) entity have become indistinguishable. Nonprofits were never meant to be ruthless, in their quest for donors, volunteers, board members, grants and revenue - or in employee relations.

Why would anyone be surprised by this statement? What is one to expect when there are 1.6 million IRS registered nonprofit entities and over 8,000 of them in Vermont. Have we reached the point, whereby, if a nonprofit doesn't adapt to the concept of competitiveness and shed its embracement of compassion, its chance of survival is doubtful? And it is in other areas as well, where the distinction of a mission driven organization, no longer exists. A large number of nonprofits have grown so huge that their financial size exceeds the assets of most commercial enterprises.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently noted just over 80 nonprofit foundations (excluding college/university endowments and other national nonprofits) that have over 205 billion dollars in assets. I don't believe that these nonprofit behemoths are willing to sit passively by and not project influence in areas that go beyond their basic mission? Conduct that was once the sole province of the business world has now dominated the news concerning nonprofits - fraud, embezzlement, discrimination, mismanagement, lack of board oversight and tax evasion.

Where is the outcry from the nonprofit sector disavowing such behavior - perhaps silence is a virtue? I may be charged with painting the landscape with a broad brush - why not? Isn't it the same brush that is used to "paint" the description of the business community? Is it unfair? It certainly is and regrettable so? Last summer I lost a close friend and colleague who had devoted over 50 years of service to the nonprofit community in Vermont - locally and statewide. He was 100 percent committed to the betterment of our state - as a trustee, executive director and volunteer to dozens of mission driven entities. If my dear friend were alive, he would witness many nonprofit organizations having lost their moral compass - their sense of mission.

It is not too late for nonprofit boards to correct their headings. No matter how dire the circumstances, nonprofit boards must be vigilant of the ramifications of callousness. Least there be any doubt, disingenuousness has no place in the board room or for that matter, in the hearts of volunteer board members.

The leaders of the nonprofit community must redefine the line which distinguishes nonprofit organizations from commercial enterprises. Failing to do so, will only accelerate the exiting of donors, volunteers and employees.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.


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