Friday, June 29, 2012

Penn State/Second Mile Scandal 4.0: The Failings of Good People

In my office I have a Penn State hat signed by the school’s famed late coach, Joe Paterno. My parents gave it to me, having received it at a corporate leadership conference at which JoePa was a featured speaker. His topic was integrity, and for many he epitomized the concept. The Penn State football uniforms were decidedly old school – no player names on the back, no decals on the helmets signifying interceptions, hits, or other performance targets. The coach disdained post-play showboating by team members – why should a player celebrate something he was supposed to have been doing in the first place? Devout Catholics, Paterno and his wife lived simply and behaved humbly. They contributed to the well-being of the community and University, co-chairing the capital campaign for a new library and donating a million dollars for a new hospital wing. Graduation rates of football players under Paterno were above the national average and he was known as a mentor who emphasized citizenship and integrity among his players. His abrupt firing in the wake of the Sandusky sex abuse scandal led to student revolt and enduring efforts to clear his name.
How can someone so roundly recognized as a person of integrity fail so spectacularly? And, if it can happen to him, can it happen to any of us?
Although the answers are speculative, they are worth considering. Good people fail because they aren’t as good as their image suggests. They also fail because of ignorance, denial, misplaced loyalty, short-term thinking, and perceived helplessness. I’ll address these features in this and upcoming blogs. First, some caveats: 1) my closest connection to Joe Paterno is the hat in my office, so I rely on the reports of others for insight into the man and his actions. Those sources may or may not be honest and valid, though I do the best I can to weed out overly biased accounts in either direction. 2) In the big scheme of the Penn State/Second Mile scandal, Joe Paterno is a very minor character (albeit the best known). Jerry Sandusky has been convicted on 45 counts of crimes against children, two PSU officials are charged with perjury, civil suits are lining up on behalf of victims, and investigations are underway concerning the two organizations involved. There are plenty of failures worth examining, and I likely will do so as the cases unfold. For now, though, I will focus on Paterno, whose outcome was so greatly at odds with his image. Let’s start with a recap of the case.
Case Review
On February 9, 2001, assistant coach Mike McQueary went to Paterno’s home and revealed that he had observed sexual abuse of a youngster by Sandusky in Penn State facilities the evening before. (The exact language McQueary used is in contention, with some suggesting that he wasn’t explicit in his explanation to his elderly mentor, and others maintaining that the message was sufficiently clear). Paterno reported it to his supervisor, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and appeared to leave it in his hands. Ultimately, with the consent of the University President, the leaders merely forbade Sandusky future access to PSU facilities. In November, 2012, grand jury findings alleged years of sexual abuse by Sandusky, including at least four cases that occurred following the 2001 case. Joe Paterno told the PSU Board that he would resign at the end of the football season but was fired immediately, as was PSU President Graham Spanier.
At least part of the continuing outrage at Paterno’s termination is based on the belief that he was made the scapegoat for the failings of his superiors. Many contend that he did what was right in reporting it and had no legal or organizational responsibility to pursue it further. Others feel he had a moral responsibility to assure that proper steps were taken, in light of his power and position and the victimization of vulnerable youths. The Coach himself said in November, "This is a tragedy". "It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." Recent developments in the case suggest that Paterno did continue to be involved beyond his initial report to Curley, and that his actions contributed to the cover-up. Reports released yesterday reveal that administrators initially agreed upon a three-step remedy to the assault, including confronting Sandusky and banning him from campus, notifying The Second Mile charity, and reporting the case to child welfare authorities. Following a meeting with Paterno, the third step of the plan was dropped. The leaders suggested they would encourage Sandusky to get professional help and that this would constitute “a more humane and upfront way to handle” it.
Whether the errors were in what he did or what he failed to do, the roots of Paterno’s lapse of integrity are germane to all of us. For starters, perhaps he could have done better if he had known more.  
Failure of Knowledge
            Though school administrators and teachers are mandated reporters in Pennsylvania, college coaches are not. Nevertheless, anyone is entitled to report their suspicions of abuse or neglect to child protective services. Child abuse was probably not a common part of Joe Paterno’s lexicon or life experience. The coach admits as much in a January 2012 interview with The Washington Post. “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was,” he said. “So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
Despite the widespread publicity about pedophilia in the Catholic Church, the notion of sodomy was even more difficult for the 85 year old to reckon with. In addressing the ambiguity over McQueary’s report to him, he told the Post, “You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.”
In addition to the lack of knowledge about procedures for addressing abuse and the harm such abuse causes victims, Coach Paterno and the PSU administrators also appear to have lacked knowledge of the characteristics of pedophilia. A stern talking to or a close call with reporting is insufficient to curb the assaults. Sandusky’s continued exploitation of youth following the 1998 investigation serves as evidence of that.
            There are many remedies for failures of knowledge: to be aware, to learn more, to avoid willful ignorance, and to seek out those who can educate us when we ourselves lack the knowledge to act.
Coming up in the next blog, the powerful combination of denial and loyalty.

Friday, June 15, 2012

When Civic Engagement Imperils the Bottom Line

Free speech and civic participation are cornerstones of democratic society. Individuals who take part in public debate, governance activities, or personal expression through blogs, letters to the news, or yard signs are not only enacting their rights, they are strengthening our social institutions. They bring the perspective of the citizenry (“the average American”) to inform policies and programs. Even when individuals have personal investment in a given cause (more dog parks for the pet lover, safer neighborhoods for the homeowner) their involvement enhances our communities. In doing so, these civic volunteers typically give more in time and effort than they reap in influence and change. Sometimes, they and their employers pay a price for their civic duties.   

A recent article in The New York Times outlined the repercussions experienced by Replacements Ltd, a Greensboro, NC based tableware distributor, when the company publicly and actively worked in opposition to a recent referendum to ban gay marriage in the state constitution. The article reports a deluge of letters and emails from customers terminating their relationships with Replacements. Bob Page, the company’s founder and chairman, didn’t intend to his actions to be “in your face”. They were simply an authentic reflection of his status as a gay man and his refusal to hide on such a significant matter. As Page says in the Times piece, “I am always concerned I will hurt our business. I know we have lost business. But I don’t have a board or shareholders I have to answer to. My life is not about money”.

But what about organizations that have boards and stakeholders? Another compelling example concerns John Tedesco, elected in 2009 to the Wake County (NC) school board while he also served as Chief Development Officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle (BBBST). In his role on the school board, Tedesco championed changes is the district’s diversity and school assignment policies that made him a highly visible target on volatile issues. News reports indicate that Tedesco’s employer was the target of criticism and donation boycotts as a result of the positions he took on the school board and the perception that those views were at odds with the mission of BBBST. While BBBST has not commented on the reports, Tedesco resigned from his job with them in 2010.

These cases present the classis ethical dilemma of “competing goods” – it is good to exercise one’s rights to civic engagement and it is good to hold one’s employer harmless for those activities. What can nonprofits feasible and legally do to balance these imperatives? I’m eager to hear from you about your thoughts and experiences.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Those Who Pay the Piper Call the Tune

Few nonprofits could survive without philanthropic gifts. Individual donations and bequests account for 16-29 percent of nonprofit income. Another 2-4 percent comes from foundations. These donations provide valuable support and serve as an affirmation of the organization’s good work and the cause it represents. Such gifts constitute “voluntary action for the common good” in the words of philanthropy scholar Bob Payton. A Google search reveals literally millions of sites dedicated to strategies for the cultivation of donations. Clearly donations are desirable. If that’s the case, big donations should be even better, right? What could possibly go wrong? 

As with other funding streams, excess reliance on a single source could create problems should crises, economic conditions, or a falling out with the nonprofit lead the funder to reduce or remove the support. Another consideration, less frequently examined, is the risk of the funding tail wagging the organizational dog.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Stanley Katz warned of the influence big donors may have on education policy. Katz is particularly concerned about megafoundations – big new entities, such as the Gates Foundation, represented by the wealthiest Americans, making fewer, larger grants and expecting more in return. Some foundations have created their own 501(c)(3)s to more directly carry out their initiatives. Katz’s cautions can be generalized to nonprofits and scaled to organizations of all sized. In essence, he offers two concerns: the distortions created by strategic investments and the ways that funders influence process and policy. 

Strategic Philanthropy

            Perhaps due to the size of grants, donors’ business backgrounds, exasperation with inefficiency, or impatience with poor past return on investments, today’s philanthropists are more specifically targeting their gifts. Akin to venture capitalists, they precisely direct their investments and carefully track the results, often making future grants contingent on attainment. The up-side of this trend toward evidence-based gifts is accountability. The down side is that many of the problems targeted by nonprofits, at least in health, education, and social service domains, do not yield immediate and conclusive results. A further problem is the tension that results when a grant or gift is tied more closely to the donor’s business interests than the nonprofit’s mission or current strategy. Organizations may be hard pressed to decline financial support, even that which comes at the expense of growing in a direction they had not anticipated or divesting from other initiatives to pursue strategically fundable ones.  

Influencing Change Processes and Policies

            The increased specificity associated with gifts means that big funders are dictating not just the goal of the award (“help kids learn to solve disputes without violence”) but the process by which the goals should be met (“institute after-school and summer programs to help kids learn to solve disputes without violence”). If the prescribed approach is congruent with the evidence base and the interests and capacities of a particular nonprofit, the fit is good. If it is not, will organizations forgo the funding opportunity or change to fit the donor’s preferences? If this trend continues, what future will agency-level strategic planning have? Will the expertise of researchers and professionals in health care, education and social services still be relevant in conceptualizing how services should be delivered? Will an emphasis on proven or promising practices foreclose novel and untested approaches to change?

            Policies and government funding priorities will surely follow those areas of focus identified and tested by big donors. This may result in more efficient use of public resources and more effective service delivery, filling a needed void in governmental planning and performance. On the other hand these advances may come at a cost, to paraphrase Katz, in how we was a society, as a sector, make decisions about the goals to pursue and the ways to achieve them.