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The Bad Press

When it rains, it pours. Seven months ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center fired its founder and chief counsel, Morris Dees. Shortly thereafter, its president and legal director also resigned. In the immediate aftermath, the SPLC annoucned that it was working on an assessment of its internal climate and workplace practices. A month after the firing, SPLC’s interim president, acknowledged that the organization had “failed to be deliberate about focusing on [the] issues that we fight for every day.”

A few days ago, the bad news continued. Another news story noted that a former employee in the Jackson, Mississippi office of the SPLC had filed an EEOC complaint this summer alleging sexual misconduct. Unsurprisingly, conservative critics of the SPLC have pounced, labeling the SPLC as “hypocritical” and as “everything that’s wrong with liberalism.” So what can a nonprofit like yours learn from this situation?

What To Do Now

1. Use anonymous feedback to identify issues before they become news. You have heard us mention it before, but using a tool like OfficeVibe can spot staff complaints before those complaints get to news organizations. Without question, anonymous feedback can be painful to read. But you need to know what’s going on in your organization.

2. When you clean house, report back. Some nonprofits think that it is best to avoid additional press after a public hiccup. But announcing you’re going to make an inquiry creates a reasonable expectation that you will disclose the results. SPLC’s failure to do so leaves readers with an unsettled feeling about one of the most important civil rights organizations of the past 50 years.

3. Ensure board oversight — even of charismatic founders. The SPLC board ultimately responded to the allegations of workplace troubles, it faced questions about whether the board had hesitated to challenge its founder. Nonprofit founders should ensure that they have active boards who can provide effective oversight. And boards, too, must take that obligation seriously.

Because we care about nonprofit risks, we provide blog posts like this one to help nonprofits thrive. 

This post is a part of our #nonprofitsbehavingbadly? series, where we find lessons in other nonprofits’ bad press so you can improve your own nonprofit risk management. Keep in mind when you read these posts that the nonprofit in the spotlight may have actually done nothing wrong. That’s part of the point. There’s always a story behind the story, and unfortunately a nonprofit does not get to write the press it receives. So what can a nonprofit do now to try to reduce the likelihood of bad front-page news?

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