Another day, another scandal. How should nonprofits assess and address public controversies? - Generocity Philly


Feb. 21, 2020 4:30 pm

Another day, another scandal. How should nonprofits assess and address public controversies?

There is no clear consensus, no playbook for Philly nonprofits to follow in the event of public controversy and scandal, but maybe there should be.

Inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

(Photo by B. Krist for VISIT PHILADELPHIA)

Here is today’s headline from the Philadelphia Inquirer: A Philly Art Museum boss hit his workers. They complained. He kept his job for two more years.

Also, here are some tweets about it:

It is only February, but it is not the first news headline of 2020 that puts PMA at the center of scandal involving the alleged misconduct of a past employee.

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This January, a New York Times article uncovered that the then-director of the Erie Art Museum had multiple complaints of misconduct lodged against him  … during his tenure at PMA.

Both controversies point to inequities in the power dynamics of the organization — which makes you wish that PMA would ask itself the questions Chicago Beyond‘s Liz Dozier uses to disrupt just that: Whose experience is valued? Whose costs and risks matter, whose are invisible? Who is accountable when organizational strategy causes harms or does not work?

PMA isn’t the only nonprofit in Philadelphia that has been embroiled in this sort of controversy, of course.

In early 2019, the Attic Youth Center executive director and director of programs were publicly accused of ageism, racism and other grievances by two lower ranking employees.

Several months after the Attic Youth Center allegations were levied, the new acting executive director, Shawnese Givens, spoke at the LGBTQ State of the Union about how the accusations had prompted the organization to examine its “policies and procedures, pay structure, how power is distributed, and how we talk about power and privilege in the organization.”

Regardless of the particular stuff and substance of the controversy, for nonprofits that rely on contributions and public credibility, the backlash of scandal can have significant impact.

In a recent piece from The Conversation, two professors who study nonprofits — Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash, both of the University of Washington — looked at how Twitter users talked about Oxfam and Save the Children “before, during and after the scandals came to light, finding that the reputation of one of the groups bounced back faster than the other.”

“There’s no one way to clean up tarnished reputations,” the authors of the article wrote. “Changing the topic surely helps. […] Another way to do this is with some help from famous friends.”

In an 2018, a different writer for The Conversation — Mark Hurst, of Lancaster University — looked at the Oxfam’s redemption arc a little differently: “The increased size and scale of NGOs in the modern world means that scandals are increasingly inevitable. How these organisations respond to them will rely on drawing upon the philosophy that binds them together,” Hurst wrote.

“Oxfam is not its CEO Mark Goldring, its international executive director Winnie Byanyima or Roland van Hauwermeiren — the former Oxfam official who is at the centre of the current controversies,” he added. “It is a broader idea about making the world a better place.”

A powerful ethos and shared ideals, Hurst concludes, is what has allowed organizations like Amnesty International and Greenpeace to overcome scandals.

There is no clear consensus, no playbook for Philly nonprofits to follow in the event of public controversy and scandal, but maybe there should be. You work in this sector. You shape practice and advance policy at the very institutions where “best practices” are born. Tell us what you think:

  • How should nonprofits assess and address scandals?
  • What do you think are the best practices?
  • In your experience, what has worked, and what has failed?
  • Is there “a powerful ethos and shared ideals” across Philly’s nonprofit sector?

Send us your thoughts




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