Finishing Last in the Race for Transparency
USA Gymnastics (USAG) has been all over the news lately due to its incessant inability to get its act together (not a technical term). The ongoing story - which initially broke with the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal in 2016 - continues today with the United States Olympic Committee's (USOC's) recent declaration of its intent to decertify USAG as the governing body for the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team. This happened in the wake of USAG President and CEO Kerry Perry resigning amidst criticism over a controversial hiring as well as the subsequent and short-lived appointment of former congresswoman Mary Bono as Perry's interim successor.
By all appearances, this latest development in the USAG saga seems to be a death knell for the organization. It even caught the attention of Nonprofit Quarterly's Editor-in-Chief Ruth McCambridge, who opined in a recent post how "dominant coalitions" can thwart a nonprofit's efforts to reform a governance structure. While McCambridge acknowledges in the post how one can't really know firsthand what the root cause of USAG's disfunction really is, what she posits seems apropos.
Whether or not USAG has a deeply fraught leadership culture or is just getting pummeled in the press (and by Aly Raisman's tweets) too often to to think straight, is also not for me to say given how wholly unconnected I am from the organization. I do think it is apparent, however, that USAG's leadership is suffering from a lack of pre-existing systems of transparency that might otherwise have signaled to its members and stakeholders that it's doing its best to act responsibly and in good faith.
"How, Rachel," you might ask, "can you possibly know this given how wholly unconnected you are from the organization?" My answer is simple... take a look at the minutes page on USAG's website.
It says a lot to me that board meeting minutes made available to the general public only date back to December of 2017. As it happens, the December meeting was when the previous USAG board apparently adopted an initial set of bylaws changes intended to improve reporting, accountability and transparency for both the board and President. I can only wonder what USAG's reporting and accountability processes looked like prior to this call for change because USAG did not make board meeting records available until it was mired in scandal and suddenly all eyes were watching.
It's worth noting that nonprofits are not typically obligated to post their board minutes and governing documents to their websites unless they are subject to open records (aka "sunshine") laws. Technically, bylaws, minutes and organizational policies are private documents and boards can usually decide whether and how they are shared with third parties. In the years since Sarbanes-Oxley however, there has been a noticeable trend of nonprofits making some (if not all) of their governing documents available to the public by proactively posting them on their websites. Nonprofits that opt not to post their meeting minutes and policies publicly may still have procedures in place for sharing those documents with members and other stakeholders upon request.
The fact that USAG put up meeting minutes from only the past eleven months suggests that the organization is trying to make a sharp, hairpin turn in the race for transparency and accountability. It is a reactive move, one that might seem disingenuous to major stakeholders, like Aly Raisman, who have positioned themselves as watch-dogs, calling B.S. on how change efforts as seen on paper are not hard evidence that the system as a whole is truly well-positioned to change.
From reading through some of the USAG meeting minutes, I get the impression that this nonprofit's governing body is feeling a lot of pressure to become more transparent, perhaps to the point of overcorrection. Still, the minutes on USAG's website also convey to me that this board has been trying to accomplish a lot of institutional change in a very short period of time. Unfortunately it seems to be too little, too late.
USAG's historical lack of transparency seems to be putting this new board in a tricky spot due to the entrenched sense of distrust that is obvious from all of the decrying happening in the press. Unless USOC's decertification hearing swings in USAG's favor, the outlook does not look good for this organization. And even if USAG retains its status as a national governing body, it still has to reckon with a number of lawsuits that could lead to bankruptcy. Despite seemingly valiant efforts from the new board, USAG's legacy is shaping up to be a cautionary tale.
So what are the lessons to be learned from this epic tale of woe? First of all, a nonprofit that fails to be open and upfront about how it handles scandal and reforms its institutions will lose the trust of its members and stakeholders. Also, there is no time like the present for any nonprofit board to give serious thought to how transparent its governance practices are and should be. This might mean full disclosure of all non-confidential board proceedings or at least publication of key policies that signal accountability to the organization's stakeholders, it's really up to the governing board to decide. Finally, and possibly most importantly, improving transparency and accountability practices is a whole lot easier to do when no one is watching.
Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE, a nonprofit governance consultant, is Principal and Owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC.