THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER: Nonprofit boards can be toxic

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Boards of trustees of Vermont nonprofit institutions are in the headlines of the Burlington Free Press, Rutland Herald and VTDigger — and for the wrong reasons — such as: "Burlington College falters," "Vermont AG Sorrell sues Emerge Family Advocates Inc.," "Trustees face Meeting Law Violation and Burlington School receive resignations from three top administrators."

Other board lapses that have been reported in the press -- Towns of Weybridge, Ira, and East Hardwick (there are others) -- where over $2.6 million embezzlement of municipal funds have occurred

What was the Burlington College board thinking when they placed the college in dire financial straits? This was accomplished in 2010, with board approval, by acquiring the Catholic Diocese's Burlington headquarters property overlooking Lake Champlain. Given the property's location it was not a bad idea — problem was, the college did not have the funds to pay the $10 million plus — so it went into debt.

Also, in Burlington, allegations from the top three Burlington School District administrators went public — reporting antagonism and lack of respect from the district's board of trustees. The board is not unfamiliar with management crisis. Last spring, the former superintendent, Jeanne Collins, quit under a great deal of pressure. State Secretary of Education Holcombe was quoted " ... the board needs to put aside any individual agenda ... "

The Vermont Attorney General's office has some latitude when it comes to stepping in when a Vermont nonprofit strays from its mission. The AG's office, until recently, has rarely done so. In early October, the AG's office sued a White River Junction nonprofit, Emerge Family Advocates Inc. It asked the court to revoke state funding and to remove the nonprofit board of Trustees. What had prompted the suit, according to Communities Digital News, were complaints of consumers and several "warring" board members.

It is not uncommon for board members of a nonprofit to bring litigation against fellow board members. Susan Smallheer, writing in the Oct. 30, 2014, Rutland Herald, characterized the lawsuit brought by trustees of the Rockingham Free Public Library: "After six months of relative peace and tranquility, some of the current and former trustees of the Rockingham Free Public Library are back to their formerly contentious ways."

Unfortunately, there are Vermont nonprofit institutions that operate in a "toxic environment." This was the phrase that was used to describe the goings on at Burlington College as well as at Emerge and Rockingham. There are other omissions and commissions. Board members who feel compelled to interfere is among the worst. A close second is board members' lack of maintaining confidentiality. For some, what goes on at board meetings is the basis for discussion outside of the boardroom. Failing to be prepared for a board meeting, stonewalling a board member who is asking pertinent questions (the Town of Ira) and not attending meetings are additional egregious infractions.

The Vermont AG's office should not stop at Emerge. Unfortunately, there are other Emerges within Vermont and they only bring discredit to nonprofits. The majority of Vermont's nonprofits are well run. Why? They have leadership, training and mentoring. At meetings, the members display dedication, preparedness, confidentiality, cooperation, congeniality and have checked any personal agenda at the boardroom door. You will not find a toxic environment where this behavior is present.

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


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