Conflicts of interest and nonprofit organizations

The settlement by President Trump of a lawsuit brought by the NY Attorney General claiming that the Trump Foundation misused funds to benefit his 2016 campaign was attention getting not only because of who was involved in the case but also because he was compelled to pay $2 million to have the matter resolved. But while unique in some ways, the matter is a good reminder of the need for effective COI compliance in the nonprofit world generally.

Writing in a recent issue of Nonprofit Quarterly Vernetta Walker notes: “Just in the past few months, Baltimore’s mayor Catherine Pugh resigned following a scandal that revealed she had profited in the hundreds of thousands of dollars from selling her self-published children’s book to the University of Maryland Medical System, where she served as a board member; the Washington Post exposed eighteen board members of the National Rifle Association who were paid commissions and fees ranging from thousands to over $3 million; and ProPublica’s searing investigation into Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center revealed a nest of self-serving behavior, including top executives who received personal annual compensation in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and in one instance over a million dollars in equity stakes and stock options from the drug and healthcare companies. Meanwhile, dozens of stories have appeared that raise questions in the minds of the public about pharmaceuticals’ funding of patients’ rights groups. These are just the tip of the iceberg of recent examples eroding the public trust.” She also writes that a “closer look at real-life examples reveals three separate but related issues that surface repeatedly: (1) failure to navigate the gray areas of conflicts of interest, including group dynamics within the boardroom; (2) failure to navigate the gray areas of recusal and disclosure; and (3) failure to fully appreciate unintentional reputational damage because, technically, the transaction being considered is not illegal.”

Walker further asks: “So, how should nonprofits navigate the gray areas where relationships are involved, the actions are not illegal, and the organization has complied with the conflict policy (i.e., disclosure and recusal)? Some organizations decide, as a matter of policy, never to enter into paid contractual relationships with any board member, so as to avoid speculation about abuse of position and influence for personal gain. Such organizations, of course, steer well clear of inviting vendors or potential vendors onto their boards. They also tend to be very careful about contracting with other organizations where staff members have an interest in the vendor or hire family members or personal friends, because they are consciously holding an ethical standard that argues against it. Where using a board member as a vendor is concerned, there may be some cases in which such situations emerge and the connection is limited enough, or thought to benefit the organization enough, that it may decide to leave some room in its policy while recognizing the risks it incurs in doing so. In all such cases, the board should make comparisons of alternative options; and it should take a vote on whether the proposal is fair and reasonable and in the financial best interest of the organization, but only if no other acceptable option is available.”

There is much more to Walker’s piece and I encourage those involved in compliance work for non-profits to read all of it.

And, you might find of  interest  this earlier post on nonprofit COI policies.

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