Category Archives: Advancement

No Confidence! Does YOUR Governing Board Have Your Interests at Heart?

A "No Confidence" banner hangs off the Sweet Briar bell tower - a symbolic heart of campus.
A “No Confidence” banner hangs off the Sweet Briar bell tower – a symbolic heart of campus.

My continued advocacy for Sweet Briar College continues.  Today’s focus is on governance, shared governance and the lack thereof (in the case of Sweet Briar).  This situation exposes issues that should be of concern to anyone who has ties to a school, college or nonprofit.   A sub-title could be “What are assets anyway?”  Assets of an institution are not just endowment, land and buildings.  Students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni and the community surrounding a place are assets deserving of the fiduciary duty of care, loyalty and obedience.

“Nonprofit Malfeasance”

In an article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, Ruth McCambridge cites Sweet Briar as having a lack of stakeholder representation on the Board and crys malfeasance  (Nonprofit Quarterly article here).  I wholeheartedly agree.

More and more, we see the public calling out nonprofit boards for decisions they have already made that appear at odds with what the stakeholders want. So it is at Sweet Briar College, the latest example of a board making a sudden decision to close only to find that they will be challenged legally, financially, and reputationally on that decision by the very people for whom they were acting in stewardship.

This lack of active connection to the base of supporters should be deemed a kind of nonprofit malfeasance, in violation of what we are organized to do.

While the faculty voted to oppose the Board’s decision to close Sweet Briar, their voice holds little power to actual affect change.  Without legal intervention it seems, the College hurdles towards a closure many are fighting to stop.

Thousands of alumnae have cried out against the closure and, in particular, feel the total lack of communication did not give them a chance to step forward to delay or stop the announced closure.  Their Alumnae Board on the matter?  Silent.  Absence any strong leadership and in response to the passion felt by so many, the Saving Sweet Briar Board established itself and is making statements representing the collective feelings of thousands of alumnae.

Governance – Who Represents the Stakeholders?

Governance is critical and very often not representative of stakeholders who attend, fund and care about an institution.  The Association of Governing Boards, a widely-respected body, issued an important paper regarding the crisis boards are facing in higher education in particular.  You can read the paper here.   I recommend the entire paper for those associated with Colleges and Universities, particularly the comments on “Rising Prices and Eroding Public Trust”. What I particularly highlight and uplift today dear readers is the following from the Executive Summary:

2. Boards must act to add value to institutional leadership and decision making by focusing on their essential role as institutional fiduciaries.

3.  Boards must act to ensure the long-term sustainability of their institutions by addressing changed finances and the imperative to deliver a high-quality education at a lower cost.

4.  Boards must improve shared governance within their institutions through attention to board-president relationships and a reinvigoration of faculty shared governance (emphasis mine).  Boards additionally must attend to leadership development in their institutions, both for presidents and for faculty.

Lack of Shared Governance at Sweet Briar

Unfortunately, shared governance at Sweet Briar seems to be completely lacking.  The faculty of Sweet Briar College voted unanimously to oppose the Board’s unilateral action to close the College (Washington Post article link here).  Yet, their voice holds little strength because they do not have a seat on the Board nor an advocate on the Board.  With shared governance working, they would.   The President agreed to meet with the faculty, but the meeting was canceled “on the advice of legal counsel”.

The Alumnae Board has been sadly silent on the matter with the exception of a few individual voices sharing comments on social media (I have not seen them, only heard that they are weighing in).  Two of their members sit on the Board of Directors and there are other alumnae on the Board of Directors; however, it does not seem those individuals have listened to the inquiries from alumnae imploring them to oppose the decision and help reverse it.

I understand that the Sweet Briar Board of Director’s (and any Board of Director’s) primary role is exercise fiduciary oversight of the institution.  I understand that their role is not to be spokespeople for any particular group.  Their key role is to protect the  assets of the institution.  The problem I see at Sweet Briar is that the Board itself is not made up of stakeholders and thus cannot fully weigh the best fiscal path ahead.  They seem to only be focusing on assets such as land and endowment and not the most important assets – students, parents, faculty, staff, alumnae and the community.  Furthermore, the President (and his administration) and the Board failed to reach out to the stakeholders who were in the best position to improve the fiscal state — the alumnae.

Fiduciary Duty…the duty of care, loyalty and obedience.

A brief departure. … Fiduciary duty is roughly defined by a duty of care, loyalty and obedience.  Taken together, these obligations require trustees to make careful decisions collectively and in the best interest of the institution consistent with its public good and charitable mission.  The Sweet Briar Board is entrusted with the charitable assets of the institution — those assets include land and buildings, but also students, faculty, staff, and alumnae.   To close Sweet Briar College seems an absolute violation of the care, loyalty and obedience required of a Board member.

One particular aspect I find troubling is under the duty of loyalty.  The duty of loyalty requires a board member to act in good faith and in a manner that can be believed to represent the interests of the college or university.  Independence is also critical and is evaluated when legal cases are reviewed.  What troubles me are the number of alumnae within a particular decade who serve on the Board. The wife of the current President, Jan Jones, has spoken and written publicly (you can read her thoughts here on a 1969 Class website) about her opinion of the College and her belief that it should close citing how many of her classmates agreed with her.   Several members of her class sit on the Board.  These public statements would not seem to lean towards a healthy balance of independence.  AGB writes,

Under this requirement, a college or university board member must be loyal to the institution and not use the position of authority to obtain, whether directly or indirectly, a benefit for him or herself…. Accordingly, the duty of loyalty considers both the financial interests held by a board member and the governance or leadership positions he has with other organizations (or people, emphasis mine)…. Independence means that the board member is not employed by and does not do material business with the college or university.  In addition, it means that the board member acts independently of any personal relationship he or she may have with the president or senior leaders of the college or university or with other trustees.

These  issues appear to be systemic within higher education as is reported by the Association of Governing Boards,

Almost daily, we hear reports about questionable board behavior:  boards that overstep their authority and get into institutional management; board members who act as faculty representatives, or captives of the alumni association; boards that are unduly swayed by single donors; boards that look the other way when it comes to trustees with conflicts; boards that fail to meet their formal fiduciary responsibilities.  The list goes on.

While it may be too late for the current Sweet Briar Board, I have suggested to the Saving Sweet Briar Board that they consider a shared governance model making sure to have stakeholders represented in their decision making.  I also joined the call for the current President and Board of Sweet Briar College to resign and, furthermore, to halt the closure of the College.

I welcome your feedback and thoughts below.


  • Does the institution you care about have a shared governance model?
  • Do YOU have a voice in any constituency group?  Does that group have a mechanism to hear the opinions of its stakeholders?
  • Does the leadership group of your stakeholders – service recipients, students, faculty, staff, alumni – have a seat on the governing board of the institution?

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.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE
Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE
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My College Announced It is Closing…Why You Should Care (with advice for anyone associated with a nonprofit, school or entity governed by a Board)

Sweet Briar College bell tower.  Photo credit:  Aaron Mahler
Sweet Briar College bell tower. Photo credit: Aaron Mahler

While this letter and post pertains to a lovely College in southern Virginia facing possible closure by its Board, it also applies to you.  Read on to discover why. I do hope my dear blog subscribers will forgive me for the recent #saveSweetBriar, pink and green and passionate advocacy for my beloved College.  As a way of reaching a broader audience, I have decided to use my “channel” in lieu of multiple posts on social media.

“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” – Malala Yousafzai

I am very disappointed not to have the voice of the Alumnae Board through the difficult days and now weeks since the announcement by the Sweet Briar Board of Director’s of its intentions to close our beloved College.  The voice of our alumnae leadership is important — and tragically missing.  I fully realize that there are other stakeholders far more impacted by the Board’s decision than alumnae (such as students, parents, faculty, staff and community members), but that does not mean alumnae do not have a voice.

Alumni Boards exist to represent the voices and needs of the alumni or stakeholders of an institution.  They are the one group that “speaks” for alumni.

I believe we are seeing one of the largest stakeholder rallies that higher education and the nonprofit community has seen or will see for quite some time.  The number of national news stories featuring the actions of the alumnae is inspiring.  National papers, regional papers, television stations,  trade journals, blogs, and a storm of social media are carrying the story of the passion our alumnae have both for their College and against the Board’s plans to close.

The current College President appears to be the primary spokesperson for the College.  The voices of the alumni on the Sweet Briar Board and members of the Sweet Briar Alumnae Board are woefully missing in the dialogue.  

At this point, a new Board of Saving Sweet Briar has taken over and filled the gap.  At this point, this Board speaks for me.  I believe this new Board of Saving Sweet Briar not only speaks for the majority of the alumnae, but also represents the truest intentions of the founder of Sweet Briar, Indiana Fletcher Williams.  Indiana formed the College as a living memorial to her beloved daughter, Daisy.  Her act of philanthropy provided the land, buildings and investments which created the College in 1901.

The monument to Indiana’s daughter Daisy overlooks the campus from a clearing called Monument Hill.  From that perch, one can take in the view of the campus created as a “living memorial” in her memory.  Daisy’s parents are buried in the same graveyard.  In the early 2000s, I put my name on a list to be buried in the columbarium at the top of Monument Hill.  I imagined one day my lifespan would be carved into the stone there.  Never did I imagine my College would have an end-date.  It will not – if I can help it.

The Amherst County Attorney and the legal counsel representing the Saving Sweet Briar Board and stakeholders believes that the College has broken State law by not honoring the intent of donors, including the founder.

No Board can say it is being true to its mission to close an institution.  A Board and administration working to close the institution is not acting consistently with the original donor’s intent and will.

I join the voices of alumnae — and now a growing number of non-alumni — crying out against the Board and Administration’s actions.  Alumnae feel they could have done something more had they learned sooner of the perilous situation the College purportedly faces.  There were mechanisms to do so.  A fundraising feasibility study undertaken with 200 of the most generous and most loyal alumnae did not “test” a “crisis message” or give any indication to those alumnae that the College’s future might be in jeopardy.  Unlike others, I DO understand why the College could not “go public” with a possible closure; however, I DO NOT understand why the College did not test out this message with the very loyal alumnae who would be the most likely to help.   Part of why I can say this so firmly is because I once worked for another institution facing possible closure and they WERE honest with a message along the lines of, “If the School were in peril and facing possible closure, would you be willing to give?  How much?” I know these questions were confidentially asked at that institution because it was my (difficult) job to visit the alumnae after these visits and discuss their support.  That School survives today.  Unfortunately, Sweet Briar administrators and the Board elected to keep their donors in the dark.

The feasibility study wasn’t the only way the College could have shared information. There is another subset of alumnae they could have contacted, Class Leaders.  Class Agents represent their class and help encourage alumnae financial support.  These Class Agents have personal relationships with their classmates and have been successful over the years raising funds.  These Class Agents – and Class Presidents – and Class Secretaries — are an organized group in every class who could have been harnessed to communicate about the intense needs.  Instead, their energy is now focused on the #saveSweetBriar movement.  Current students and parents were also kept  “in the dark” and shocked at the announcement.  I am certain there were avenues of communication that could have been utilized to strengthen their support.  When I attended Sweet Briar, there was a Parents Council and my parents reached out to fellow parents formally and informally.

If you are not a Sweet Briar alumna and you have read this far, I assert that this should matter to you because…

….If you are an ALUMNA/ALUMNUS of ANYWHERE…YOUR alumni board of YOUR College has an important role to play. Your Class Officers (if you have them) should be a source of timely and important information.  Your Class Secretaries could share information not just about alumni life and career highlights, but also key information from your School.  I know my Class Leaders (because I am one of them) would have taken this on with thoughtfulness and gusto.

….If you are a STUDENT or PARENT attending ANY SCHOOL… your Board of Directors has incredible power over your future.  You should make a point to read the meeting Minutes.  Read the financial statements. Develop relationships with Board Members.  Scrutinize the membership of the Board – is it representative?  Ask questions and ask again.  Are there forums to learn information?  What would YOU do if your Board announced it was closing your child school?  Nonprofit?  What would you do NOW to prevent it?  Whatever that is — DO IT NOW!

There was a movement in higher education in the late 1980s and early 1990s to end Alumnae Associations (particularly with separate dues structures).  I saw this happen at Sweet Briar.  The dues that alumnae paid provided operating support for the Alumnae Office staff and programming.  When I worked for Sweet Briar College in the early 1990s, the dues structure was abolished with only Clubs in regions remaining independent.  Then it was thought that this was a good move for the staff because they could become full employees of the College with benefits.  The Alumnae Association leadership came under the control of the Development (fundraising) Office.  As a fundraiser, this all made sense to me.   After soliciting a major gift from someone, I certainly didn’t feel right asking them for a $30 gift of alumnae dues.  As an alumna, Iooking back, I realize this was a terrible mistake.

The independence of an Alumni Body or stakeholder body is critically important.  There must be a separate organizational body of each key stakeholder ideally with financial footing and also with a vote on key issues facing the institution.   If the organizational body at the institutions you love does not have representative voices from key stakeholders on its Board, you should advocate for that NOW.  If a School:  students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, community members.  If a non-profit:  service recipients, residents, community members, staff.   Dues may seem “silly” to collect, but having a financial base is helpful and necessary to retain independence.  I, for one, advocate a donor “tax” on all gifts to fund Alumni Associations vs. separate dues.  The very activities of an Alumni Association are what cultivate and often steward donors. 

In the public school my children attended the Parent Teacher Organization had tremendous power.  They collected separate dues.  They had their own meetings.  They were not always lock-step with the administration.  They had a voice through the County Board of Education to voice their views and oppose decisions.

At the private College I attended, many of these types of leadership structures were and are absent.  Now that we face closure, I realize we lost important voices and funding mechanisms that could help today.  

So where do we go from here?  Yesterday, the #saveSweetBriar Board, represented by its attorney, asked the President and Board to step down.  The President and Board responded in the media that they intended to keep their positions.  I imagine further legal actions will take place, and I hope they do very soon.

As a professional fundraiser, I watch this with keen interest.  I know there are many extremely important lessons to learn with respect to what is happening with Sweet Briar.  These lessons pertain to the nonprofit community as well.  I am taking notes, so stay tuned.  I have been contacted by my industry’s publication to write an article about it.

Until then, as a graduate of Sweet Briar College, I am doing everything I possibly can to reverse this decision and keep the College open.  I want to look back 5 years from now, 10 years from now or at the end of my life and know that I did all I could.  I would still like the College to be thriving WHEN it becomes my final resting place.

Until then, #saveSweetBriar.

View from Monument Hill of Sweet Briar College (photo credit:  Campus Grotto "10 Most Beautiful College Campuses)
View from Monument Hill of Sweet Briar College (photo credit: Campus Grotto “10 Most Beautiful College Campuses)




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