Category Archives: Board Malfeasance

Lessons learned from a phoenix and a vixen: Examining the attempted closure of Wilson College and Sweet Briar College

Fox in flames (credit: Fur Nation)

I am currently in graduate school pursuing a Masters in Business with Nonprofit Management concentration.  This semester, I am taking Organizational Theory and Nonprofit Management.  Each course required me to prepare an annotated bibliography and an individual paper.  With my instructor’s permission, I chose Sweet Briar College, my alma mater, as my focus (normally, you cannot pursue the same research subject in different courses).

My first assignment came in the Organizational Theory course.  We were to take a case study covered in an academic journal and use it as a basis for our individual paper.   This seemed daunting at first.  However, as I began my research, I found many case studies with similarities to Sweet Briar College.  The attempted closure of Wilson College has startling similarities to the attempted closure of Sweet Briar College.  The annotated bibliography provides a “deep dive” in issues facing higher education and the lessons available to learn from Wilson College.  You may find a link below.

Annotated Bibliography:  Phoenix rose emerges from the briar fire (annotated bibliography comparing Wilson College’s attempted closure to Sweet Briar College).

Research Paper:  Lessons learned from a phoenix and a vixen.

fox and flames

As the paper came together, the title changed and some sources fell away in favor of others.  The lessons learned from the attempted closure of Wilson College are relevant for many colleges.  The abstract follows:

Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, whose mascot is the phoenix, survived a closure attempt in the 1980s. Sweet Briar College, in Amherst, Virginia, whose mascot is a vixen (fox), faced attempted closure in 2015 and was saved by its stakeholders six months later. This paper explores case studies and articles reporting on Wilson College and Sweet Briar College.  Other articles elaborate on trends faced by the Colleges and the broader sector of higher education.  Reviewing these colleges provides valuable lessons on challenges facing higher education, particularly for private, single-sex institutions.  The case for this research is Wilson College with comparisons to Sweet Briar College. Both colleges are small women’s colleges with enrollment under 1,000.

Keywords: Sweet Briar College, Wilson College, stakeholders, shared governance, students, faculty, staff, exempt staff, non-exempt staff, alumni, alumnae, minority, president, board.

 

 

 

 

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Repeal! An Analysis, a Road Map & a Draft Letter

What we need right now is an about-face, a u-turn, a change of heart...
What we need right now is an about-face, a u-turn, a change of heart…

Editor note:  This along with several other posts has been emailed to all members of the Board of Directors with email addresses.

I have written at length about the President and Board’s decision to close Sweet Briar College since March 3.  Initially, the Board refused to provide any data or reports which they used to make their decisions.  This is one of the reasons the stakeholders of Sweet Briar College (students, faculty, staff, alumnae/i, community members, elected officials) have such a hard time accepting and RESPECTING their decisions.  Since then, through legal discovery, various reports have been released.  We are still missing key reports, such as the Arts & Sciences report (which Arts & Sciences included on its client list, but has since removed).

Screen shot of the Arts & Sciences firm regarding their Sweet Briar Report (this link has since been removed) - why?
Screen shot of the Arts & Sciences firm regarding their Sweet Briar Report (this link has since been removed) – why?

Many people feel there must be something nefarious going on or personal financial gain driving the President and Board.   It may turn out that one or more Board members would gain financially from Sweet Briar College’s sale; however, I think there are two simple reasons we have not seen any flexibility or change:   Saving face and group think.  I also think it is not too late for one or more brave board members to revisit their decision.  Below I provide analysis, examples and a template.
Continue reading Repeal! An Analysis, a Road Map & a Draft Letter

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Dear Mr. Jones, (pointing out an error and a request for an orderly resignation)

James Jones sent a letter to the American Association of  University Professionals and posted in on the Sweet Briar website.

Read the letter to the AAUP

Dear Mr. Jones,

I was sent a copy of the letter you sent to the American Association of University Professors. I write to draw your attention to an error in your letter and call for you to cease saying something that does not reflect well on you. While I do not know you personally, I write out of respect for the office you hold. I did want to write to you – and board members writing in national media — so that you could avoid continued embarrassment.

By way of introduction, I have worked in fundraising and higher education since Sweet Briar (25+ years) and I also worked at the College in the 1990s. I was on the call when you spoke to alumnae after the closure and shared with you my experience working at another institution that was honest with alumnae when it faced challenges. As you may recall, that institution now thrives. Since March 3, I was concerned about this “feasibility study” you referred to on that call and board members continue to refer to since then. As alumnae who were interviewed started to come forward, as I learned staff made the calls, as I heard comments you and board members making, my concern grew. Initially, I was critical of the firm and the consultant on the survey as I could not believe the firm would conduct a survey with such poor methodology. I believed you when you said you had a feasibility study – until I spoke to the firm and realized you did not.

Sweet Briar College does not have a “feasibility study” in the Donor Insight Survey conducted by Grenzebach Glier and Associates. I have spoken to the firm and to the principles charged with the study. They were charged, as you may know, from the former President, Jo Ellen Parker. The methodology for the survey is not designed to draw a conclusion about fundraising amounts. The charge was simply to interview donors about possible strategic planning directions. Staff conducted the meetings which, as you must know, is not customary or considered reliable (neutral consultants conduct feasibility interviews under confidential agreements). As you must know from your past experience, a fundraising feasibility study has specific methodology to be able to draw conclusions about what might be raised for a campaign. I give you the benefit of the doubt – I assume that you, Vice Chair Wyatt and other board members THOUGHT you had a feasibility study, but you did not. I understand the firm has asked the College to stop using the term. You can contact them for further clarification.

The most you could draw from this survey is that fundraising ALONE might not be enough to help the College’s financial challenges (other revenues streams are also critical); that alumnae would embrace change; and that alumnae would continue to give. The firm was just as shocked as the rest of your stakeholders with the decision to close. If you read the survey (I have since it is now part of the discovery process), you will see that alumnae would embrace ANY change if it meant “No Sweet Briar at all” and they would give.

But you don’t need a survey to know that alumnae will give. Now that alumnae, students, parents, faculty, staff, community and people across America are mobilized, funds are pouring in. I have served Sweet Briar as a volunteer since my graduation and I have never seen this type of engagement and generosity.

As another suggestion, it would be nice if the College released on the web the reports on which you have based your decision to close. The Arts and Sciences report, to which you refer in your letter, has not yet been released. Instead of waiting for legal discovery, it would be a nice gesture to make those things available that were paid for with operating dollars (which includes alumnae donations).

There is much hope for the future contrary to your perspective. I am sure you, your staff and the board have a very difficult job right now. Obviously, you must know I am on the side of saving Sweet Briar. As a colleague in higher education, I do empathize with the difficultly you all must face now.

Finally, in addition to stopping using the term feasibility study, I do ask you to consider an orderly resignation along with the board. At this point, I think your dignity and reputation will be stronger if you do as other strong leaders have done when there is public outcry for change. Jamshed Bharucha, President of Cooper Union College, resigned this week. Five trustees resigned in unison as well. There are countless examples of excellent leaders who went on to positive careers or happy retirements who stepped down when they heard the call.

Thank you for considering this request.

Sincerely,

Stacey Sickels Locke
Continue reading Dear Mr. Jones, (pointing out an error and a request for an orderly resignation)

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Sunshine Laws & the Case for Abolishing the Executive Committee….everywhere….

Sweet Briar College's Board is described by its own members as, "
Sweet Briar College’s Board is described by Richard Leslie, a former member as, “ham-handed, myopic and dictatorial”.

Sweet Briar College provides excellent lessons for schools and organizations about which I have written over the past few weeks.

This title, “Sunshine Laws & the Case for Abolishing the Executive Committee….everywhere….” lifts up the need for transparency as well as the downfalls of having an over-arching Executive Committee of a Board.  After all, who wishes for a small group of people to make decisions for them when they are fully capable of weighing the same evidence for themselves?  No one.  No one likes others to make decisions for them, particularly when the decision is terminal.

Mr. Richard Leslie’s opinion piece “Sweet Briar’s Leadership was a Short-sighted Mess” in the Washington Post regarding his experience on the Board sheds light about the Board’s governance practices that led to its controversial decision to close the College announced on March 3, 2015.  It is sickening to hear about the conduct of this board.  As more and more information unfolds in the legal discovery process and in the national media, it is obvious this board was incapable of solving tough challenges, practiced poor governance and made a faulty and hasty decision to close.  It is time for them to resign.  In the words of Dr. David W. Breneman, member of the Executive Committee, he admits their weakness,

We knew that we faced an existential challenge, but collectively we were unable to find an answer.

Vice Chair of the Board, Elizabeth Wyatt, describes it even more simply,

“We tried….”

Today I dive deeper into the issue of governance and examine the Executive Committee model both at Sweet Briar College and through my own experience.  I call for implementing Sunshine Laws and practices immediately and abolishing Executive Committees everywhere.  Why?  Because it makes for better boards.  I learned the hard way….

When I served as Executive Director for Anne Arundel Community College Foundation and Director of Institutional Advancement for the College, I inherited a board with a strong Executive Committee, Chairs of Committees and a robust list of 20+ board members.  I was cautioned by the outgoing Executive Director that not many of them showed up and that the majority of the work was done within the “EC” (Executive Committee).  This wasn’t cause for alarm for me, in fact, it was the norm from places I had been and boards on which I had served.  All of the training I received in leading boards led me down the path to this model.  I now realize the consequences of this model and know there is another way….

Enter the rising board chair.  Six months into my five year tenure at this organization, a new board chair rose to lead the board.  He was an accomplished accountant with a large firm in the area and a respected community leader.  When he rose to the position of Chair for the Board, the first thing he said to me was, “We are no longer having an Executive Committee.”  My first response was, “What???  How are we going to get our work done??”  As an Executive Director, I LIKED the idea that I could convene a few people on the phone or by email and resolve issues (which were later reported to the board  fait accompli).  He explained to me that, through his board experience, he didn’t appreciate serving on a board when it seemed that a smaller group actually made decisions and he simply was asked to rubber stamp them or not weigh in at all.  He said, “Eventually, people feel like their time is wasted and their voice on the board doesn’t matter.  Trust me on this, we will have a better board.”  He was right.

This new model for the private foundation was closer to the operations of the Board of Trustees at the same College .  As the College was State funded, they were required to operate under Sunshine Laws.  Those laws forbade Trustees to meet or make decisions outside of a public forum.  In light of Sweet Briar College’s current fate, this approach seems very refreshing and worthy of consideration for future leadership.

Sunshine Laws call for openness.  Whether mandated by law or best practice, these practices make for good decision making and leadership.
Sunshine Laws call for openness. Whether mandated by law or best practice, these practices make for good decision making and leadership.

DEFINITION of ‘Sunshine Laws’

Regulations requiring openness in government. Sunshine laws make meetings, records, votes, deliberations and other official actions available for public observation, participation and/or inspection. Sunshine laws also require government meetings to be held with sufficient advance notice and at times and places that are convenient and accessible to the public, with exceptions for emergency meetings.  (Credit:  http://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/sunshinelaws.asp#ixzz3cl9l2SXB )

If the Government can figure out to publish their meetings in advance and make their deliberations public, I certainly think a small nonprofit or College could do the same.

At Sweet Briar College, the Executive Committee had completely usurped the power of the board, Richard Leslie wrote in the Washington Post:

During the five-year term of the Presidency of Jo Ellen Parker, rather than none, all critical decisions were made by a small subset of the Executive Committee of which Ms. Dalton was a part.

The full board was occasionally asked to ratify decisions, which they dutifully did.

Upon the entrance of Jo Ellen Parker, all board members were specifically instructed not to contact a member of the Senior Staff without first obtaining permission of the relevant committee chair and the president. They even brought in a coach from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), an organization solely funded by the presidential budgets of our nation’s colleges, to reinforce this stifling of involvement.
As I can personally attest, those who even accidentally violated this rule were reprimanded by the president.

By contrast, when I worked for Sweet Briar College in the 1990s, I found an engaged Board open to feedback from all fronts.  As a junior staff member, I was encouraged to attend meetings (albeit sitting in the back), interact with members of the Development Committee, continue to volunteer as an alumna, and interact with students regularly.  I attended meetings of the Development Committee and worked with several board members around the country for Regional Campaigns.  I stayed in these board member’s homes and we shared ideas throughout the day.  Imagine if that board member had not been able to speak to me at the time? Board members under the current administration were told not to talk to staff members and were reprimanded when they did.

In documents connected with the court cases (click here for a link to all legal proceedings), Mr. Leslie further wrote that even the decision to move the interim President to full President was made without input from the full board.

'Please shred all of the napkins we wrote anything on.'
‘Please shred all of the napkins we wrote anything on.’

Interim President James Jones in an official College “Q & A” said this about the Executive Committee when asked why the Board didn’t share its Minutes:

Q: Why not release the meeting minutes?

Jones: “Because we do not have to release the minutes and because an enormous amount of what went on was done in executive session where ther
e are no minutes.”

When I first heard this I was disgusted.  As more experts debunk figures used by the board and more information becomes public, it is disturbing to me to know that the full board was not included in “an enormous amount of what went on….”.

The American Association of University Professors remarked on the Sweet Briar Board’s unilateral action as follows,

On March 3, 2015, with no warning, the board determined the college’s fate without any faculty participation, in evident disregard of widely accepted AAUP-recommended governance standards, as set forth in the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, jointly formulated by AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. The board acted in secrecy, even though for two years the college’s faculty had been developing alternative curricular and programmatic scenarios to assure Sweet Briar’s survival.

All stakeholders of Sweet Briar College were shocked by the Board’s lack of transparency and action:  students, parents, faculty, staff, alumnae/i, community members.

Back to my personal experience with my board chair and the transformation that unfolded.  Initially, the board didn’t know what to make of the notices that our meetings would be a bit longer and there would be a new approach.  While we still sent out Committee Reports from Committee Chairs in advance, those Committee Chairs were given more time at the meeting to update and to discuss.  When preparing for the meeting, the board chair and I would go through what decisions needed to be made and the flow was designed to provide information on those items and voting early in the meeting.  If we got into too much detail when preparing, he would stop us and often say, “The full board would appreciate hearing this.”

The meetings themselves transformed in small ways at first.  People who normally arrived late and left early stayed to the end.  Those who often were multi tasking with their blackberry in their lap were more engaged and participated in discussion.  If anyone had held back not contributing during the meeting, the Meeting Evaluator (more on that in a moment), would ask for their input during the roundtable evaluation of the meeting a the end (more on that as well).  By the third meeting, the tables were filled.  We had to change rooms.  By the last meeting of the year, there was a buzz in the room, constant dialogue, engaged members.  Oh, and not surprisingly, giving from board members increased as well as offers to engage between meetings.

The idea of having a Meeting Evaluator and a roundtable meeting evaluation come from the book, Death by Meeting, which I commend to everyone.   The meeting evaluator takes notes throughout the meeting regarding participation, length of discussion on items and gives feedback for improvement to the group.  During roundtable evaluation, there is a brief report-out sharing either a take-away from the meeting or something a member would like to see in the future.   Best of all, the five tips for better meetings is transformative if heeded. One of the five is worth lifting up in particular:

Provoke conflict. Are your people uncomfortable during meetings and tired at the end? If not, they’re probably not mixing it up enough and getting to the bottom of important issues. Conflict shouldn’t be personal, but it should be ideologically emotional. Seek out opposing views and ensure that they are completely aired.

Back to Sweet Briar College.  The Board of Directors of Sweet Briar College voted to close on March 3, 2015.   Imagine if this board actually operated with some form of Sunshine Laws or even basic transparency?   We would have:

  • Meetings locations and agendas published in advance.
  • Meeting minutes available for review.
  • Reports used for deliberation available for public review.
  • Stakeholders represented (students, faculty, parents, staff, alumnae/i, community members).
  • Opportunities for public comment.

Imagine if the Executive Committee either didn’t exist or did not make decisions in private?  I do wonder whether the full board might have reached a different conclusion if they had access to the same information.  Is this a board that can be trusted to issue a death sentence?  I think not.

The Sweet Briar College Board of Directors voted to close - a death sentence to the College and a violation of the will of the founder. Their deliberations are not unlike famous executions in history not based on proper facts or due process.
The Sweet Briar College Board of Directors voted to close – a death sentence to the College and a violation of the will of the founder. Their deliberations are not unlike famous executions in history not based on proper facts or due process.

Unfortunately, this board has issued a death sentence to Sweet Briar College.  Fortunately, the legal system has intervened including the Virginia Supreme Court.  

I assert that this board expresses the worst in governance practices.  This board has a small insular Executive Committee making decisions outside of the full board’s input.  The board took actions before announcing closure to violate donor’s gift intentions (meeting with the Attorney General to use donated funds for closure purpose)s.  The leadership provided erroneous data (now being revised with eight-figure errors).  The board members were given reports on which to base their decision without being able to review those reports in advance (they were collected after a cursory review period at one meeting and collected before a vote).  Board members were told they could not launch a fundraising campaign based on a survey not designed to provide the data for such a decision (an analysis of this study with input from the firm charged with conducting it is explored in this article).   This is pathetic governance and their decisions are simply not to be trusted.

"Collectively we were unable to find an answer" -- Dr. David W. Breneman, board member.
“Collectively we were unable to find an answer” — Dr. David W. Breneman, board member.

Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., a charitable organization committed to the future of Sweet Briar College, stands ready to provide new leadership and support.  To contribute, please visit Saving Sweet Briar.  To review the strategic direction for the future, please visit:  Sweet Briar 2.0.

Please also consider reading:  http://beingunlocked.com/2015/05/would-you-like-to-save-a-college-an-open-letter-to-philanthropists-everywhere/

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE, is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment and she feels a sense of duty that those donations are not used for the closure of the College or for any other purposes than the donors intended. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement. She raises funds for Saving Sweet Briar, a charitable organization committed to the future of the College  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

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Donor Insights Study Analysis (NOT a Feasibility Study): My response to Board Member’s Erroneous Statements in National Media

Elizabeth Wyatt’s June 3, 2015 letter in the Wall Street Journal, “We Tried Hard but Sweet Briar’s Problems are Terminal”  and Diane Dalton’s letter in the Washington Post called me to both respond to the article as well examine some of its points.

Given that all parties in the Sweet Briar College matter are gathering in good faith in mediation facilitated by the Attorney General, I continue to find it surprising that the Board’s Vice Chair would pursue stories like this.  It seems the very opposite of having a good faith effort towards mediation.

What disturbs me most about the letters by Elizabeth Wyatt in the New York Times and Diane Dalton in the Washington Post  are the continued use of questionable “facts” and figures.  They are using figures which Sweet Briar itself now questions.  They are using reports (such as the Sax Report) that do not meet academic standards.  Now that I have READ several of the reports, I interpret that the Board saw a “falling sky” where others saw rays of sun.  The Donor Insights Survey (which the board members erroneously refer to as a “Feasibility Study”) is one such report.  As fundraising is where I spent my professional time, I found this report particularly interesting.

 

Donor Insight Survey, February 2015 - delivered just one month before the College Board voted to close.
Donor Insight Survey, February 2015 – delivered just one month before the College Board voted to close.

This survey was conducted by a very reputable firm, Grenzebach Glier and Associates; however, the consultants themselves were not used for the actual interviews (which is customary in an actual feasibility study).  The College sent staff members to visit donors.  As a result of this methodology (which the consultant discloses in the report), the results were bound to be a bit suppressed (more on that in a moment).  Kathleen Kavanagh, Senior Executive Vice President of the firm, and a Sweet Briar alumna, is a well respected leader in the field.  I put great stock in her work product and I see the merits of the report she provided. She has provided consulting for a long time at Sweet Briar including when I worked there.  What I disagree with is the misunderstanding of the purpose of the report, the misuse of the findings and the Board continuing to use the report as a compass pointing towards closure.  As I read the Donor Insights Survey, I actually see many hopeful things which the Board obviously chose to disregard or overlook.  But the real issue is this — whether this report was used as justification not to do fundraising and to close the College or not — WE NOW KNOW THAT A FUNDRAISING EFFORT IS INDEED POSSIBLE.  My question now is this… WHY DON’T YOU LET US TRY???

The following is a response to Ms. Wyatt’s opinion in the Wall Street Journal (and elsewhere)….

Dear Ms. Wyatt,

Further to your opinion in the Wall Street Journal, in which you say:

“We Tried Hard… but Sweet Briar’s Problems are Terminal”: The numbers were not in our favor. Any effort to reinvent the college would require significant investments of time and money.

 

Ms. Wyatt, help me understand as a Board Vice-Chair, Sweet Briar alumna and business leader how you and your colleagues on the Board would not have read further into the studies for which you paid.  Help me understand how you repeat the same facts and figures based on figures your own team is now revising?  Help us understand why you did not undertake a fundraising campaign.  It seems that this Board saw storms where others saw rays of sun.

We now know that the alumnae of Sweet Briar College are WILLING to”expend the NECESSARY investments of time and money” to which you refer.  It is clear you “tried hard” and that is just not good enough.  Step aside, Ms. Wyatt, and take the rest of your Board colleagues with you.

As someone who has worked in higher education for the majority of my career (including at Sweet Briar), I continue to find the behavior by this Board and the actions of the current administration very hard to understand.  You continue to repeat the same facts and figures (most of which have been debunked by numerous experts) and fail to provide copies of the reports on which you base your decisions and with which you used substantial Sweet Briar College funds to secure.  Fortunately, some of your reports are making their way to the public eye and they do not reflect well on your analysis, decision-making or choice of staff.  Yesterday I received a copy of the Donor Survey cited in your recent article.

Since you refer to the reports as the basis for your decision-making, let me focus primarily on the Donor Survey since that is the area I best understand.  I will leave the analysis of your financial stewardship to other experts such as Dan Gottlieb, a professional forensic accountant and your own legal team now restating its finances with a $17 million rounding error and misstatement.  I commend to your reading, Jay Orsi’s piece “Sweet Briar’s Own Expert Uncovers Misrepresentations In Its Financials”.

Ms. Wyatt, I have served as an Executive Director of a Board, I have served on nonprofit boards and I have worked at Sweet Briar under fantastic financial and development leadership.  While the hiring of such people is left to Presidents, the review of their work product is the work of the Board.  The Board has clearly failed in its review of key documents as well as its vetting of reports provided for its decision making.  I understand that the firm who did this study was NOT charged with testing the ability of the College to raise funds.  Rather, their charge was to test with the College’s generous donors their reactions to various strategic planning priorities.  The firm was just as stunned as the College stakeholders to learn of the decision to close. To refer to this report as a “feasibility study” (as you do in your article) is misusing the report and is not fair to the firm who conducted it.

Methodology:  Gift officers were deployed to interview constituents in person and by phone (usually this is done by a consultant for confidentiality).
Methodology: Gift officers were deployed to interview constituents in person and by phone (usually this is done by a consultant for confidentiality).

With respect to the Donor Insight Survey, I have several comments.  I make these having hired over 20 consultants over the years and utilizing fundraising consultant’s studies in my work for over 25 years.   This is a very good study and an interesting report – this Ms. Wyatt, is NOT a feasibility study.

Let me first focus on the methodology. First, the survey was conducted by gift officers (staff).  I presume this was a cost-saving measure because it is widely considered not to be a best practice to use anyone other than the consultants themselves for donor interviews.  The reason for this is that donors will not usually make a candid comment to a staff member regarding what “best gift” they might make because there is an inherent feeling that a solicitation is being tested.  In fact, in the section “Influence on making a gift”, only a small percentage of alumnae (13%) said that a development officer or College leader influenced their philanthropy.  It is clear that these same donors were not likely to discuss their giving with the people who visited them. I have spoken to many reputable consultants on this topic and have received unanimous feedback that using staff would clearly skew results in a negative direction when assessing capacity of a donor and even inclination.  To draw conclusions from a survey with this methodology would make me question both the findings and your use of them to support closure.

The only conclusions you could legitimately draw from this survey (based on what the consultants were charged to do) is assess your donor’s reactions to possible changes.  That is it.  It is not fair nor appropriate to say that this survey could be used to show that a fundraising campaign would not be successful.  Grenzebach Glier and Associates would have been delighted, I am sure, to conduct an actual feasibility study.

12 donors were capable of making a commitment of $1 million or more OF THE IDENTIFIED FOR THE STUDY.
12 donors were capable of making a commitment of $1 million or more OF THE IDENTIFIED FOR THE STUDY.

The financial analysis stating that “Only 12 donors were RATED (emphasis mine) as being capable of making a $1 million gift” is not a basis on which to evaluate fundraising potential.   12 donors of 139 is not a bad percentage.  This figure of “12 donors” has been repeated by you and President Jones as if to say that there were only 12 $1 million donors in the entire population of Sweet Briar.  This is not what the report is saying!  There are MANY in the Sweet Briar community capable of major gifts and there are many capable of making smaller gifts adding up to a greater total.  Work directed at both ends of the spectrum seems to have been lacking with key positions unfilled (I know this because I interviewed 18 months ago and the position was never filled). There was greater capacity when I worked for the College in the 1990s.  That capacity should have grown since then, not gone down. Since that time, a greater percentage of our alumnae are working and capable of giving.  There has been an intergenerational wealth transfer widely written about since that time. Donor after donor after donor report that they have been “hardly asked”, “asked for low-level gifts” and “ignored”.  Many major donors report how badly treated they were by former Presidents — one was asked for a $3 million gift after no previous cultivation.  The donor then gave a $25,000 gift in response — and the check was never cashed!

Interviewees identified as major prospects (by the staff interviewers).
Interviewees identified as major prospects (by the staff interviewers).

On page 25 of the report, it appears donors in the survey were evaluated for potential with a “yes” or “no” question as to whether they would make a major gift.  I hardly think yes or no questions asked by staff would provide enough data on which to base a “no go” for a major gift effort.  Furthermore, the majority of the respondents actually answered “yes” that they WOULD make a major gift in the Campaign.  It is baffling how it could be determined that a fundraising campaign wouldn’t be worthwhile.  If 48.2% (95 of your 139) could or would make a major gift — surely there would be some hope once you actually started talking to donor #140 and beyond.  Your own consultant leads the way for a campaign to take place.

I have used wealth screening by the same firm you used for your study.  Throughout the survey, wealth screening “ratings” are used as filters for data. Wealth screening is only ONE measure to base capacity for fundraising success.  I am currently using “Wealth Engine” data in my daily work and routinely find people rated extremely low who are capable of making very generous gifts.  A donor rated by GGA wealth screening as being capable of a gift in the range of $1,000-4,999 made an eight-figure transformational gift of a building to my institution this past year.  Had I relied on the rating, I never would have even spoken to this person.  This is not the fault of wealth screening – electronic tools can only see so much.  Professional fundraisers know this is a tool of many in a tool box and not a tool used to spear possibility.

Most respondents indicated that they would continue to support Sweet Briar College philanthropically in light of ANY (emphasis mine) potential changes.
Most respondents indicated that they would continue to support Sweet Briar College philanthropically in light of ANY (emphasis mine) potential changes.

The biggest issue I have with the survey is the questions it failed to ask and the issues it failed to raise.  If this report was being used as a litmus test for whether the College might close, stronger questions could have been tested to indicate how alumnae might respond.  A study is only as powerful as the questions and issues it tests.  Stating there are “mixed feelings” about “changes at the College” such as going co-ed or focusing on STEM fails to ask the most obvious question — what would the donor do if the future were uncertain?

I am not ill-informed about the power of questions in a feasibility study.  I once worked at an institution facing closure — an all-woman educational institution.  We, like Sweet Briar, hired a consulting firm for development coaching and a fundraising feasibility study.  That consultant, a Sweet Briar alumna, had a huge task ahead.  She had to work with the Board to come up with the questions that would be tested with the alumnae.  She had to work with my fundraising team to solicit gifts with integrity not knowing what the future held.  She pushed very hard for candor and testing the “tough questions”.  There was a lot of anxiety about being honest and whether or not it would send out fear that would harm donations.   I am sure Sweet Briar and its staff faced the same questions (however, you actually were not honest with your staff who were out asking the questions since most of them were also shocked at the Board’s decision).  But here is the difference.  In the feasibility study to assess fundraising potential, there were very difficult questions asked.  I remember they went something like this,

“What would a world be like without _____________” and “What would you be willing to do if the future were uncertain?”

These types of questions give a donor the chance to tap into how much they love a place.  It also gives a glimpse as to what the donor might be willing to do if she felt it were threatened.  It also allows them to realize that the future may NOT be certain. On the heels of this, a question about what a donor might be willing to do – when a neutral consultant is speaking to them – elicits the kind of information that truly assesses what might be possible.  Guess what?  That institution thrives today.  Sweet Briar missed an opportunity – and continues to miss an opportunity – to be candid and to allow its alumnae to help.  Conclusions about closure drawn from a survey that never actually asked about what a donor might do to avoid it is at best a missed opportunity and at worst, flawed analysis.

"The large majority in the middle were open to the idea of (change, emphasis mine)... with a preference for remaining all-women's, but preferring a co-educational Sweet Briar to no Sweet Briar at all"
“The large majority in the middle were open to the idea of (change, emphasis mine)… with a preference for remaining all-women’s, but preferring a co-educational Sweet Briar to no Sweet Briar at all”

We now know what alumnae and others are willing to do when they think the College’s future is in peril.  They give.  They give a LOT.  As of this writing, they have given $16.5 million.  A different wealth screening conducted by a reputable firm has reported a conservative estimate of capacity of over $100 million.

The “resistance to change” cited in the report cannot be relied upon when the very donors with whom you spoke were not given the consequences of a lack of change — closure.  The report clearly hints at the fact that “financial stability” was a key driver in why the report was written.  Furthermore, ways the College might change should really not be solely in the arms of alumnae to hold and consider.  Testing the ideas with potential students and industry partners — and then presenting that data to alumnae — would be a far better measure of what directions might be embraced.  Sweet Briar 2.0, a collection of experts and passionate supporters of Sweet Briar, provides numerous ideas for future consideration.

Your biggest clue in what alumnae would be willing to do lies in the “majority” of those who answered the question about Sweet Briar going co-ed.  On the bell curve cited, a small percentage said they would stop giving if Sweet Briar went co-ed.  A small percentage said they favored co-education.  The report cites, “A large majority in the middle (a majority of your MAJOR DONORS mind you, emphasis mine)…would prefer a coeducational Sweet Briar to no Sweet Briar at all.”  This section should have flashing lights around it for the boldness it contains.  Even though you did not test the question of closure — the majority of your alumnae would rather see a changed Sweet Briar than none at all.  Remember, this is only 197 people, not the wider community of alumnae who would likely have fallen into the same bell-curve.  Of the 197, the report states, “Most indicated their willingness to support Sweet Briar in light of ANY of the proposed changes….”  Did you just overlook this part?  In short – the majority of your alumnae would have preferred ANYTHING to “no Sweet Briar at all”.

This survey asking alumnae to make commentary on the weaknesses and strengths of Sweet Briar is both helpful and also not relevant.  The alumnae interviewed had already CHOSEN Sweet Briar and are committed to it.  Again, a market study of incoming Freshman is a far more valid source of information on the strengths and weaknesses of Sweet Briar. Note – to date that report (the Arts & Sciences report) cited has NOT been released. Having just been in Lynchburg this weekend and seen the thriving Randolph College and Lynchburg College, clearly there are many who choose this wonderful region for education.  There are also many women who choose women’s education.  It seems Sweet Briar stopped recruiting from the markets who would consider it, particularly Internationally.

I have always respected the firm who produced the Donor Insights Survey — and I still do.  In terms of timeline, my understanding is that this study was commissioned by the prior President, Jo Ellen Parker, but was not completed when she left.  The current Board asked the firm to complete it, but without new direction for how it might be used.  Again, the charge to the consultants was to help design a survey to test reactions to strategic planning priorities – NOT to conduct a feasibility study for a possible Campaign.  Certainly not to do a survey that would be used to show no possibility of fundraising success.  I have heard positive reports on the other consultants utilized by the College. Evidently another report addresses the enrollment issues, but that report has not been made available to alumnae.  The Dr. Sax report has been debunked for its sample bias.  The financial statements are now being amended with $17 million errors.  It seems that a combination of flawed advice and, even worse, flawed conclusions led to where the Board sits today.

You don’t need a study at this point to know what is possible — those working to save Sweet Briar College have proven that a fundraising effort is possible.

Back to your own words Ms. Wyatt:

“We Tried Hard… but Sweet Briar’s Problems are Terminal”: The numbers were not in our favor. Any effort to reinvent the college would require significant investments of time and money.

I do not disagree that you and the Board “tried hard”.  The problem is your version of trying isn’t adequate.  In the movie “The Empire Strikes Back”, Yoda (George Lucas) says the famous words which ring true today:

Do or do not…there is no TRY

Those working to save Sweet Briar College are WILLING to make the “significant investments of time and money”.  On that point, we agree…that is what it will take.  I am willing to give that time and money (and raise it) and I know there are thousands just like me.  One of the first calls I would make would be to the very consultants who provided the road map to a positive conclusion — which you and your colleagues on the Board refused to see.

It is clear you already made up your mind and you continue to keep your eyes shut to possibility.

Respectfully,

Stacey Sickels Locke, `88

Note:  Article updated throughout to include information verified by a representative of Grenzebach Glier and Associates who confirmed the timing of the study and the charge.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE, is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment and she feels a sense of duty that those donations are not used for the closure of the College or for any other purposes than the donors intended. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement.  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

 

 

 

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Behind the Scenes of Saving Sweet Briar — an inspiring example of passion, purpose and progress.

Never ever depend on Governments or institutions to solve any major problems.  All solutions come from the passion of individuals.

Never ever depend on Governments or institutions to solve any major problems. All solutions come from the passion of individuals. – Margaret Mead

While there are many issues to examine with respect to the President, Board and operations of Sweet Briar College, it seems fitting to focus for a moment on the efforts to SAVE the College.  I feel I can take a little break from my ranting against the horrible leadership, governance and lack of proper administration for a bit. The legal team inspires confidence and there national experts rolling up their sleeves and taking aim at those issues.  Most recently it is the Amherst County Board of Supervisors.  I thought today I would share a glimpse at the amazing work being done to #saveSweetBriar.

Yesterday I attended a farewell gathering of a colleague at the University of Maryland and was asked by many in the room about Sweet Briar.  I found myself describing my efforts and those of my fellow alumnae and felt my spirits rising with each retelling.  It is a story built on determination.  It is a saga filled with drama and intrigue.  It is a case study in alumni activism that will likely become an inspiration for our sister Colleges and other small liberal arts Colleges around the country.  I can also confidently say we have worthwhile lessons to share with colleagues around the WORLD.  I met a visitor from the University of Manchester in England who asked me to share some of the key lessons learned.  The Saving Sweet Briar efforts are the very example of what Margaret Mead famously wrote.  Wait for it… (this isn’t the quote you are thinking I am going to use),

“Never ever depend on governments or institutions to solve any major problems.  All social change comes from the passion of individuals.” — Margaret Mead.

I have served on many boards from schools to arts organizations to sports teams.  Alongside many passionate parents (and some alumni), I have added my weight to a collective effort to move something forward.  Never in my 30 years of volunteerism or professional experience have I seen the likes of the mobilized alumnae of Saving Sweet Briar.  Allow me to pull back the curtain and share a few examples….

Saving Sweet Briar, Inc.  Within days of the announcement of the Sweet Briar College President and Board’s decision to close, a group of courageous women banded together to formally fight the closure.  First, they opened up their pocketbook to pay for necessary legal counsel in Troutman and Sanders.  Second, they established a Board.  Third, they applied for 501C3 status for Saving Sweet Briar, Inc.  They had a vision and mission statement, a segment of which is here:

Saving Sweet Briar, Inc. was established to block the closure of Sweet Briar College and provide accurate information to students, faculty, and alumnae about the true financial condition of Sweet Briar College and the viable alternatives to closure. The organization is also dedicated to raising the necessary funds to fight the closure and help erase the school’s financial shortfall. Saving Sweet Briar, Inc. is also committed to identifying highly talented individuals who can serve on the Sweet Briar College Board of Directors to help lead an immediate turnaround for the institution while developing a longer term strategy with input from key stakeholders. Success in achieving our mission will ensure that future generations of women can proudly call themselves Sweet Briar alumnae.

In their own words, they all wish to be “out of a job” and see themselves as temporary stewards.  An example of the kind of top-notch experts they have hired to provide advice and guidance for the future include a forensic accountant, R. Stephen Spitzer,  and a college turnaround expert with solid examples of other institutions.   The Board vets candidates for a new Board; they have a list of interested College Presidents with proven turnaround experience; experts on a number of fields are being vetted to provide real advice for the future.

The call to action is clear:

Spread the word

Share your Sweet Briar Story with your friends on social media using the hashtags #savesweetbriar and #thinkisforgirls

Volunteer

Do you have particular talents that would help us with our mission to save our school? Contact us.

Raise Money

We need money to support our school! Given the state of financial aid and higher ed, Sweet Briar needs to grow its endowment to stay viable. Crowdfunding information to follow.

Help Keep Our School Alive

There are over 500 women on campus who need our support. Help us help them keep our school alive.

In the meantime, the thousands of alumnae have managed to create an organizational structure rivaling some of the largest Universities (I speak with experience working for a B1G school, University of Maryland and serve on the University Senate).  There are literally HUNDREDS of Committees of EXPERTS in their professional areas reporting up through Chairs who compile the information into master documents.  The first of these documents, a Strategic Plan, was delivered to the Saving Sweet Briar board in time for the first injunction hearing.   There are PhD experts, attorneys, professional fundraisers, accountants, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, coaches, scientists, elected officials, C-suite executives of every type providing advice that the College — any College or nonprofit — would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure (I say this with experience having watched schools hire consultants for narrowly focused work and deliverables).  Sweet Briar College itself by the Board’s own admission paid over $1 MILLION for a report that was never concluded and the Board members were not able to keep after reading it and voting to close the College.

quote-margaret-mead-if-we-are-to-achieve-a-richer-5707

Committee Structure.  This is a case for the power of social media if there ever were one.  Facebook, in particular, has provided the platform for alumnae to organize their efforts.  Early in the process, pages were created for experts to share suggestions in different areas in the “Saving SBC Professional Roundtable” (a closed group so not hyperlinked here).  Categories include every aspect of operations:

Academic Affairs, Admissions, Development/Fundraising, Diversity, Career Counseling, College Placement, Grounds & Facilities, Information Technology, Land (Creative Use of/Maintaining), Legal, Student Affairs, Social Life.

Each group has professionals who have spent their careers in these areas with best practices to share. The alumnae’s willingness to help is not just lip service.  Examples of alumnae offers and efforts to assist include:

Deferred maintenance problems?  Check.  Habitat for Humanity-like plans for improvement including painting, plastering and even building repair by licensed contractors paid for by alumnae or their own companies.  These are documented offers to help as they cannot execute these plans without coordination from the facility leadership.

Admissions/Recruitment problems?  Check.  Alumnae from around the Country have offered to reinvigorate a dormant network of volunteers to attend College Fairs, visit area feeder schools (and aspirant feeder schools), house admissions staff traveling, personally write interested students and their families.  In addition,  the Alumnae Angel Network are alumnae who sponsor students needing support transferring to another College.  Even if this might mean losing a student needed for the future, the movement is supporting the current students in tangible ways.

Fundraising problems?  Check.   As of this writing, over $1 million in cash is in the Saving Sweet Briar accounts.  Over $10 million in pledges over five years are being held in trust by Saving Sweet Briar for the College once the closure decision is reversed and there is a Board and Administration committed to the future.  A Major Donor Task Force (of which I am a part) has weekly conference calls to coordinate outreach to past donors to the College and those who care and aren’t even affiliated.  A Regional Task Force from each state writing to their residents, particularly those not on social media.  Liaisons to classes (a traditional way to communicate with alumnae) share information on a weekly and even daily basis with links to give, participate and support.  All of this has been accomplished without the tools fundraisers usually have (I know because I am one).  For example, a donor database has been faithfully RECREATED through years of magazines publishing giving information and even programs from past campaign celebrations kept as keepsakes — now data for a defacto giving database.   It is INCREDIBLE to watch and witness.  This is worthy of its own blog post, stay tuned.

Communications Strategy?  Check.  The initial news stories reported the Board’s decision to close.  The news of the alumnae outcry and mobilization was relegated to the comment section of most stories.  However, the tide has turned.  Now, major news outlets are reporting on the success of the alumnae efforts and on the amazing accomplishments of our alumnae, the morning of my writing the New York Times wrote about our alumnae and the efforts to save the College.  This type of media battle and reversal of message does not happen easily.  It has occurred through professionals and passionate individuals working with contacts to share opinion, provide worthwhile facts to report, verify stories and share perspective.  Interestingly, the headlines of some of the earlier stories have changed from “College imploding” to “Alumnae Fight Closure”.

Conspiracy Theories?  Check.  One of my favorite movements within the Saving Sweet Briar collective, is a group a la Erin Brokovich that dedicates itself to researching the “back story”.  The team (which includes some with investigative journalism experience) posts pieces of documents, theories, lists, etc. and a broad network do their further work and reports results.  Some of these get passed along – once vetted — for journalists or the Saving Sweet Briar Board.  Just when my own efforts to Save Sweet Briar might flag or my confidence wane or my enthusiasm might be dampened by some new comment by the “President”, someone from the group will post some new theory or angle that gets me MAD.  They have even inspired and commissioned political cartoons.  I have the one of the women turning over the rock next to my phone (for when I “dial for dollars”).

The efforts of the alumnae are truly inspiring.

Imagine – just imagine – if their efforts were harnessed BEFORE the College announced it must close.

Imagine if the Board took stock of this advice and reconsidered their decision?

Imagine if YOUR organization harnessed your stakeholders?

Sweet Briar is receiving DAILY national attention.  Sweet Briar students, faculty, staff, alumni and community are rallying to share their expertise.  The future IS bright and there is much to hope for with this kind of passion.

At this point, I cling to the other Margaret Mead quote – the one you know by heart – because I am seeing it validated on an hourly basis.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. -- Margaret Mead

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead

Our aim is not the world for now.  For now it is a small piece of the planet located in Southern Virginia, Sweet Briar.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE, is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment and she feels a sense of duty that those donations are not used for the closure of the College or for any other purposes than the donors intended. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement.  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE
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Where is a General (Attorney General in this case) when you need them?

There are a few more men joining the President on top of the "no stone left unturned"....
There are a few more men joining the President on top of the “no stone left unturned”….

As many know by now, I am passionately fighting the closure of my beloved College, Sweet Briar, by the President and the Board.  I have written about my thoughts on the lack of governance.  This post will focus on the curious and shocking lack of leadership by the Virginia attorney general, Mark Herring (you can find his contact form here), contrasted to the swift action of the County Attorney, Ellen Bowyer.  I also share another example of leadership by the New York attorney general intervening in the Cooper Union College.

In the early days of the Sweet Briar College closure announcement, the Virginia attorney general remained strangely silent on the matter of the announced closure.  The President and Board referenced meetings with Mark Herring, Virginia’s attorney general, to “unwind” College operations and unrestricted the endowment for the purpose of closing.  This stunned me.  There was no leadership by the Virginia Attorney General with respect to an investigation into the closure — which would seem a logical first step (well before any closure announcement, but certainly upon learning of one).

State attorneys general oversee nonprofits both because they’re generally exempt from state taxes and because they represent the interests of donors who may lack the means to enforce the terms of their gifts or, once they’re dead, the capacity. (Since such institutions are also exempt from federal taxes, the Internal Revenue Service is charged with ensuring that organizations adhere to their tax-exempt purposes.)  Credit:  Michael Appleton for The New York Times

The County Attorney of Amherst, Ellen Bowyer, has boldly taken action on behalf of donors and to request an injunction.  Her suit charges that:

Closure would violate the terms of the will under which the school was founded and that charitable funds have been misused in violation of state law. (Susan Sverlunga, Washington Post).

Mark Herring, by contrast, evidently is HELPING the leadership of Sweet Briar College to release restrictions on donor’s contributions given over the years.  As a fundraiser, I find this terribly concerning.  I’ve written about the topic of protecting donor intent here.

Virginia Senators have written to the attorney general to express concern and to ask that he take action to protect the rights of donors and the substantial campus.

On Wednesday, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, asked Herring to issue a legal opinion on what must be done with money and other gifts that have been given to the college, including its substantial campus. He also asked Herring to clarify the obligations of Sweet Briar’s board of directors.

“It seems to me if their duty is to try to fulfill the mission of the school, they ought to be making some effort to keep it open or at least look at the option of keeping it open,” Petersen said. (Alicia Petraska, Lynchburg News and Advance)

Cooper Union College in New York is under scrutiny by the New York attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman.  It provides a contrast in leadership and action:

In what should be a ringing alarm for nonprofit boards across the country long accustomed to minimal scrutiny or accountability, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York has signaled that the laissez-faire approach to nonprofit governance is over. (James Stewart, New York Times)

By contrast, Mark Herring of Virginia sees his role as meeting with College officials to violate donor intent.  How can he think he is doing his job?  One would think he would have more Virginia citizens wanting him to advocate for the College and to examine any possible mismanagement of funds.  The Washington Post reported,

Herring essentially argues that in such a situation, with a charitable institution (the college, a nonprofit established in a bequest from an estate) disbanding, the state attorney general has been granted authority by the General Assembly to determine what is necessary to protect the public interest. (Susan Sverluga, Washington Post).

Back in New York, Eric Schneiderman boldly stepped in BEFORE Cooper Union College faced financial ruin.   The New York Times reported:

Apart from the impact on Cooper Union itself, what’s striking about Mr. Schneiderman’s investigation is that his office is intervening before its financial problems ruin the school. Cooper Union’s endowment stood at $735 million at the end of its most recent fiscal year and, despite its financial woes, it is in no imminent danger of failing.

“It’s easy to forget, but New York’s charities, collectively, are a big and important part of our state’s economy, and I consider it my responsibility to promote and protect the nonprofit sector,” Mr. Schneiderman told me this week. “In part, we do that by aggressively investigating and prosecuting fraud. But we work just as hard to prevent mismanagement before it starts and, whenever possible, get troubled charities back on track.”

It would be appropriate for the Virginia Attorney General to aggressively review the President and Board of Sweet Briar College.  He might consider how the President was elected; whether the Board truly took all measures possible before resorting to closure; whether the financial records accurately state the condition of the College.  He might consult neutral experts such as the accounting firm which audited the Colleges’ financial statements most recently or the accrediting body of the College which granted accreditation for another 10 years in 2011.

By contrast, in New York, their attorney general takes action before “disaster strikes”:

The Cooper Union investigation fits into the New York attorney general’s office’s broader strategy to get ahead of potential crises by “stress testing” nonprofits that show signs of potential trouble, such as large operating deficits and excessive spending rates on endowments, said James Sheehan, the chief of the office’s charities bureau. “Once an organization is in trouble, donors don’t want to give money and people don’t want to join the board,” he said. “We want people to anticipate these issues before they become disasters.”

Such disasters have befallen the New York City Opera and Long Island College Hospital, two major New York institutions that collapsed in financial disarray in recent years, and the Crystal Cathedral in California, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010 after accusations that its board had imprudently borrowed against the endowment.

Unfortunately, Virginia did not have any “stress testing”.  Perhaps it was a matter of staffing or a view of role.  However, wouldn’t it be safe to request that the Virginia attorney general take efforts to investigate these types of important matters?  Minimally, might he not stand in the way of his own County Attorney who filed suit against the wrongful closure?

The President and Board of Sweet Briar College are now being held accountable by the people they did not inform or allow to help:  students, parents, faculty, staff, alumnae and the wider community — the majority citizens of Virginia.  Might he not consider the thousands of people begging for at least a proper process within the legal system?

Whatever the outcome at Cooper Union, Mr. Schneiderman deserves credit for putting nonprofit boards on notice that they’ll be held accountable, said Jack B. Siegel, author of a widely used guide for nonprofit directors, whose subtitle is “Avoiding Trouble While Doing Good.” “More states should emulate New York,” Mr. Siegel said.

This is no small matter, given that nonprofits accounted for 9.2 percent of all wages and salaries in the United States and 5.3 percent of gross domestic product in 2010, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. Given the many illustrious universities, hospitals, museums, orchestras, theaters and other arts organizations, nonprofits play an outsize role in the nation’s culture. But they have traditionally received little scrutiny until a scandal erupts or they’re on the brink of collapse.

Indeed, more states should emulate New York.  Virginia should take a lead and PROTECT Sweet Briar College, its employees, its students and its donors from the reckless leadership of the current President and Board.  Sweet Briar College employs hundreds of faculty and staff.  Hundreds of students call it home.  Millions in the endowment needs to be protected — not raided.  Finally, the donor’s will should be honored.  The one person in the state who should be advocating for the will of the founder has turned his back.  This is very sad.

Thankfully, we have a leader in Ellen Bowyer who took swift action.

“Time is of the essence,” the suit, filed on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia by the county attorney, Ellen Bowyer claims, as college officials appear to be rapidly moving to sell assets, destroy documents and “obliterate contractual relationships governing tenancies and endowments.” (Susan Sverluga, Washington Post)

Meanwhile, Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., along with thousands of alumnae, hundreds of students and parents, community members, the citizens of Virginia and people across the country are doing all they can — primarily through donations and grassroots efforts to raise awareness.   Please share your comments below and, should you be moved to give, make a commitment here.

To share your comments with Mark Herring, Virginia Attorney General, you can use this contact form.

In response to the President's comment that he "left no stone unturned", this image shows the will of the students, faculty, staff, alumnae and CITIZENS of Virginia crying out for leadership.
In response to the President’s comment that he “left no stone unturned”, this image shows the will of the students, faculty, staff, alumnae and CITIZENS of Virginia crying out for leadership.

Stacey Sickels Locke is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment and she feels a sense of duty that those donations are not used for the closure of the College or for any other purposes than the donors intended. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement.  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE
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Governance – Best & Worst Practices (with Sweet Briar College as a case study)

The President and Board of Sweet Briar College announced on March 3, 2015 its intention to close.  Since that time, the actions and culture of this Board have revealed themselves shedding troubling light into the dark shadows of the Board’s governance (or lack thereof).  It is important for all who care about their schools, colleges, universities and nonprofits to understand how their Board operates and governs.

Types of Boards — Definitions

Governing Board.  A governing board leads the organization from the top.  They are responsible for articulating the organizational mission and executing plans as well as monitoring the effectiveness of programs.  The also have the authority to recruit, hire, evaluate and terminate the President or Executive Director of an organization. Finally, they serve as a fiduciary of the fiscal health of the organization.

Who serves on a governing board is determined by the type of board it is:

Shared Governance Institutions that have a shared governance model include the voices and leadership of stakeholder groups on the Board.  A leader from each constituency group has a “seat” on the Board and participates in decision making.  In a College or University, this means that the head of the official student, faculty, staff, parent and other key groups would sit on the board.  In addition, “at large” members may be recruited from those groups or the wider community.

Self Replicating A self replicating Board replenishes itself by a nominating group within the Board.  Usually, this is a Nominating Committee.  If there is an Executive Committee, that group sometimes has a role in nominating.  Ideally, the entire board is canvassed for suggestions for new members.  Board members meet with potential candidates and their names are put forward for nominating committee review.  The up-side of this model is that the Board has a pipeline of candidates.  The down-side is that the board can become insular as people tend to reach out to people they know and who share a similar point of view.  Diversity of all types becomes threatened in this model (not to mention solid decision making)

Advisory Boards.  Advisory Boards provide industry expertise to academic programs.  In many institutions, they review curriculum to make sure that what is being taught is in line with what job requirements are after graduation for jobs hiring in the field. John McElroy, PhD, CFLE and Linda Dove, MS, ZA, Western Michigan University in an excellent paper on Advisory Boards describe them as follows, 

“..Their main function is to offer support to institution administrators and faculty….comprised of accomplished experts offering innovative advice and dynamic perspectives….can provide strategic direction, guide quality improvement, and assess program effectiveness.”

Sweet Briar College Board of Directors 

In the case of Sweet Briar College, they have a self replicating Board which does not consist of constituency group leaders officially.  The majority of the Board are alumnae.  As the Board does not share its Minutes or documents, the only glimpses we get into their operations are their own statements as well as statements by former members.  The President’s own words describe the decision-making process as a small group of people:

“The board, some key alumnae and I have worked diligently to find a solution to the challenges Sweet Briar faces….”

One member of the Board, Richard E. Leslie, who felt pressure to resign because his ideas and opinions seems to run counter to the “Executive Leadership” gives us a frightening glimpse into the current culture of the Board.  He contrasts the current operating of the Board to his past experience prior to Rice, the current board chair:

During my early years of my seven year tenure the board had vital and rigorous discussions on most issues before reaching consensus.

Fiscal restraint and enrollment increase ideas were monitored and discussed at every meeting.  Times have changed.  Now I must add my name to the list of directors departing before the end of their terms.

Most disturbing is that he states that differences of opinion were not tolerated by the Executive Leadership of the Board.

Each time I tried to argue for fiscal prudence, I was denigrated or ignored.

This is not a sign of healthy board deliberations.  Mr. Leslie was trying to raise some warning calls.  This also gives some idea as to the remaining members of the Board.  If they saw board members who disagreed or raised a contrary opinion being forced to resign and leaving before their terms – and a lack of tolerance for any opinions differing from the Executive Committee – those who chose to remain were likely silent if they held any concerns.

In the past year, Committees met less and less…. We discuss less and less and the presentation of the budget is a foregone conclusion.  Is this good governance?

No, Mr. Leslie, you are exactly right, this is NOT good governance and it is appalling to hear that this is how the current board operates.  Your comments are echoed by others who have left the board, some of whom who have stepped forward to create Saving Sweet Briar.

The most troubling of his comments is important to emphasize:

Why do we even need Committees?  Why do we even need a Board? All decisions are not even made by the Executive Committee but rather a small sub-group of the Executive Committee and passed along to the board for rubber stamp approval.  … the interim President selection was passed along to the Board and it wasn’t even felt necessary to take a vote!

My distrust for Mr. James Jones aside, the Board not having a proper vetting and vote for his appointment as President casts serious doubt as to this Board’s ability to govern.  Furthermore, it gives credence to the call for Mr. Jones to resign or be removed if he was not ever properly voted upon by the Board.

A lingering question I would have related to the changes Mr. Leslie cites are whether the by-laws were amended to change the decision making to a small group.  I cannot imagine a full Board voting to allow a small group to make decisions for them, but let transparency provide the answers in this case.  My understanding is that  there were two votes evidently to change the number of board members required for a quorum:  Once before the February vote from 24 to 23 and then again down to 20 after the announcement.

No outside directors have been appointed to the Board since you (Rice, the current Board Chair) and I (Richard Leslie) were appointed to the Board seven years ago.  All new members have been alums. This is not healthy and fosters a very insular focus that does not encourage the diversity of views necessary for any institution to thrive.

Indeed, the lack of diversity not only in type of stakeholder on the board and the lack of diversity in the alumnae appointed to the Board is cause for concern.  Combined with the fact that the full Board may not have had access to important information or deliberations by the smaller group within the Executive Committee casts doubt upon this particular Board being capable of proper governance.  I would add the lack of representation by stakeholders is also of serious concern including the voices of faculty, staff and the wider community.

There is no plan or even discussion of a plan for Presidential accountability. In my view one of the reasons for the many sad failures in admissions, retention and fiscal restraint is the absence of any performance goals for the President.

This is a shocking.  One of the important fiscal roles a Board plays is the hiring, goal-setting,  evaluation and removal of a President or Executive Director of a nonprofit.  They are the only entity that holds a President accountable.  If this is true, combined with not having a fair vote for the President’s appointment, this would be further grounds for a lack of confidence in and removal of the current President.

I was the lone vote for voting against $1M of our endowment money being spent for yet another strategic plan…. As a member of the “working group” I have repeatedly asked for and not received any information about the actual survey protocols. I have received no information about who at the College is in charge of this massive effort. … Really!!? An outside consultant supervising the work of an outside consultant she hired?

Hats off to Mr. Leslie for being willing to be a lone vote on a Board that seems to take a “rubber stamp” approach to its decision making.  He raises incredibly important points.  Whenever an outside consultant is hired, there should be strong controls put in place for deliverables.  Surveys are only as good as the questions asked and results are only as good as sound methodologies of analysis.  If the protocols were not reviewed by the very working group charged with reviewing and implementing the results, any conclusions those surveys suggest would be in question.  We know now what some of their recommendations were and there are thousands of alumnae who join Mr. Leslie in his concern.

Request for Board Transparency (and best practices)

In the interest of transparency, I would like to see the Sweet Briar Board of directors provide the following (which incidentally is normally available to constituents of non-profits, schools, colleges and universities either upon request or even more readily such as via a website):

  1. Copies of its by-laws.
  2. Copies of its Minutes.
  3. The Committees of the Board and the staff members who staffed those Committees.
  4. Committee Minutes and Reports.  I would like to see reports provided to the Committees of the Board would also like to know whether staff members were included in those Committees whose work focused on important areas such as Admissions, Development and Finances.
  5. Documentation of historic by-law amendments over the past five years if the Committee structure were changed and proof (through Minutes) of a vote taken to approve those changes.  The rationale for having to change the numbers on the board twice in a year.
  6. Documentation of the vote of the Board to approve the hiring of the President and the change from Interim to full President.
  7. An accounting for fees paid to outside consultants and a release of those reports — particularly since endowment funds were used to pay for the study.
  8. How members of the board are found, vetted and nominated and the role of staff when extending invitations (reference Teresa Pike Tomlinson being asked about serving on the Board by a staff member).
  9. How the Alumnae Board and the Board of Directors sees its role (if the by-laws are not clear on this)
  10. How other entities of Sweet Briar with their own Boards relate to the Board of Directors
  11. Are there Advisory Boards for any of the academic areas for Sweet Briar?

Resources:

Legal documents including Mr. Richard Leslie’s letter quoted herin

Association of Governing Boards:  Consequential Boards

Saving Sweet Briar

Personal Feedback & Observation

As an employee of Sweet Briar College in the 1990s, I participated in the Development Committee of the Board and was invited to attend Board Meetings.  Granted, I sat on the side of the room, but I was present for board deliberations, votes and reports from all Committees, not just Development.   While there were some deliberations that occurred in closed session, my recollection was that it was only pertaining to the evaluation of the President.   I do not recall a board member ever leaving before their term was out.  The fact that the current board has had several members leave before their terms expired is not a good sign.  Mr. Leslie gives us a clue as to why he resigned – he felt he was forced out.  We do not know about the other members, but one could reasonably guess that they had concerns.  Having to amend the by-laws for the number of members twice in a year is also troubling.

At the University of Maryland, I have been elected to sit on the University Senate.  A shared governance model is a strong model for higher education and one that I think a future Sweet Briar should employ.  By having shared governance, all key stakeholders can deliberate their unique issues and present a unified voice to a larger Board or Trustees.

One of the most powerful lessons I have learned in managing boards came when I served as Executive Director for the Foundation for Anne Arundel Community College, voted the top Community College in the country and with an enrollment of over 50,000 students.  The Board Chair, F. Carter Heim, abolished the Executive Committee of the Board as one of his first actions when he took office.  As a staff member, I liked the Executive Committee, it allowed me to write reports and handle business within a small group.  However, I quickly saw the merits of Mr. Heim’s philosophy.  Board participation in meeting attendance, committee attendance and giving increased dramatically.  Mr. Heim’s philosophy was that there should not be anything outside the purvue of the entire Board.

Finally, I would suggest that a strong network of Advisory Boards be employed in each major on campus for Sweet Briar to maintain its connection to graduate-level education progression and hiring opportunities.

Sweet Briar College offers some important lessons for nonprofits, schools, colleges and those who love those institutions.  I will continue to share those I find most pertinent.  Please comment below if there are issues you would like to see discussed.

Stacey Sickels Locke is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment and she feels a sense of duty that those donations are not used for the closure of the College or for any other purposes than the donors intended. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement.  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE

 

 

 

 

 

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