I’d like to start with a brief measure of your moral and ethical fortitude. Imagine you are coming out of a store and you see a car pull out of a parking space and smash into another car. You watch as the car drives away, making note of the offending driver’s easy to remember vanity license plate. As far as you know, you are the only one to have witnessed this accident. How would you respond? Would you call the police? Leave a note on the damaged car? Or would you just get on with your life and not get involved? Image the same story, except you recognize the damaged car as belonging to a friend you had met while shopping. Now what would you do? Your response to these scenarios will help put what follows in context.
This past August I was on an island in the South Pacific, relaxing into a little space to clear my mind and find some peace since Janet’s death in April. The month after her death had required my full attention as I worked to provide a memorial for family, Janet’s extended and impressive network of friends and any members of the public who wished to show their respect. Concurrent with and following this event has been a depressing solitary process of disassembling what remained of Janet’s life – her cremation, her psychotherapy practice, her business interests, her bank accounts, her medications, her clothes and uncounted smaller changes that if nothing else reminded me she was gone. Sorting through many, many thoughts and memories on Kaua`i, what emerged were five or six key areas I wanted to focus on in hopes of rebuilding a foundation for the future.
Principle among these areas was Cherubim Foundation. I believed here was one piece of Janet that could strengthen, grow and continue – perhaps for a long time. An organization she put her blood, sweat and tears into in order to make it as successful as it was. By her efforts, Cherubim Foundation made it to its 6 year anniversary, a mark 95% of startups never reach. This is also to the credit of a lot of people who supported our efforts with generous contributions of time, materials and money. No one, however, contributed more than Janet. I would put myself at a distant second. In Cherubim Foundation I saw a way to keep some part of her presence alive. I believed my past service to the organization as a Board member, president, software engineer, computer technician and chief technical adviser would be of benefit to the current Board of Directors as they sought to navigate Cherubim Foundation past the loss of its founder and onto a successful future. I believed my detailed knowledge of Cherubim Foundation’s history as well as my qualifications would be of significant value.
What followed was an extensive discovery process into what the current Board of Directors had been doing in the months since Janet’s death – a review of close to 10 years worth of hard and soft copy documents to reacquaint myself with Cherubim Foundation’s history, over 20 face-to-face meetings and 40+ lengthy phone conversations with past and present Board members, family, friends and long time supporters of Janet and Cherubim Foundation. I never expected the need to be this thorough. But then, I never expected to find what I did. As a result of these efforts and intervening events, on September 15 I sent the Board a letter which said, in part:
After careful review of previous Board meeting minutes, current financial statements and conversations with current Board members, I have determined it would not be beneficial to my personal goals to join the Board of Directors at this time.
Furthermore, since the organization’s emerging mission, business operations and alliances as determined by the current Board have significantly deviated from those I have supported since the organization was founded over five years ago, I feel it is in my best interests to withdraw my expertise as technical adviser to the organization and resign my position on the Advisory Board.
What I found and experienced was so unsettling, and the Board so unresponsive to acknowledging my concerns let alone resolving the issues, I withdrew server support for their web site, database and email. It was only when I did this that the Board was interested in talking with me. By this time, my concerns had been expressed independently by others. In addition, two Board members resigned as did an absolutely vital member of the office staff.
Throughout my conversations I frequently heard, usually in resigned tones, that this sort of disintegration happens all the time in nonprofit organizations. The implication was that this is the way of it, that all I can do is accept it and move on. Its discouraging to see how much people have yet to learn from what Janet did for her self and for others. What wouldn’t have happened if Janet simply accepted the way things were when she was initially diagnosed and dutifully died when she reached the two year predicted life span? That’s a long list. Time and again we had the opportunity to stand up and say “That’s not right and it needs to change.” When we had the resources, we made the call. The Board of Directors for Cherubim Foundation has full authority to bring the organization to a level of sustainable mediocrity. But if they do so, I will not contribute my consent by remaining silent.
There are issues of fact and issues of principle to what I found. On the issues of fact I have chosen to exercise my right and duty as a citizen to inform the appropriate state and federal regulatory agencies so that they may initiate any action based on as many facts as I can provide. Such channels involve process and procedure and take time to work through the system. I will not comment on these issues until the process has had time to complete. In this post I will present the issues of principle.
The Board of Directors for Cherubim Foundation can certainly argue the issues described here represent the new direction they have chosen for the organization. Likewise, I am free to disagree with their decisions and make those disagreements known to people who, like me, have supported a set of core values within Cherubim Foundation that are different from the ones being substituted by the current Board of Directors. I’m not aware of any nefarious or malicious intent on the part of any of the current Board members. I am choosing to believe they are good people and I see no reason to question their intentions. The issues listed below can be attributed to a failure in understanding Cherubim Foundation’s business model, failure to properly think through the consequences of their decisions, a hands-off approach to management and unrealistic expectations that good intentions alone will make the organization successful.
In summary, what I found was:
Numerous examples of stripping down Janet’s vision for the organization. For example, it appears the Board recently capped the annual benefits allowed to cancer patients at $1,125 (July 11, 2005 Board meeting minutes). Previously, this ranged from $1,200 to $2,500 depending on diagnosis. Before incorporating Cherubim Foundation, Janet and I calculated how much we were spending each month to support her non-insured care. That number was a little more than $2,000. We decided at a minimum the organization should provide for one year what we were spending for Janet’s care each month. Anything less would be little more than a hug and a get well card for Cherubim Foundation’s participants. The eventual goal was to increase the amount offered to cancer patients. Why is the Board cutting support for cancer patients? Looking at the financial statements, they don’t appear to be over committed. Are they planning on spending the money somewhere else? Is it less money for more people so the number serviced looks better? What is their strategy behind reducing the benefits?
Numerous examples of introducing business objectives in direct conflict with the founding vision. For example, the organization is now advocating public political positions (Referenda C& D, Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, Health Insurance Flexibility and Accountability Initiative Waiver for Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program). By design, Cherubim Foundation was apolitical so as to appeal to the broadest base of supporters. Before incorporating Cherubim Foundation, Janet and I decided using the organization to take a side in any public political issue would erode support. It would create another side that is against the side taken and so would diminish the support base. Over time, the decision to remain apolitical was repeatedly validated given the diverse political opinions we heard expressed by numerous donors and volunteers. Public political efforts also add the risk of violating IRS 501(c)(3) rules and so would divert personnel and financial resources away from caring for cancer patients in order to monitor compliance.
The money donated in response to Janet’s passing and during her Celebration of Life memorial wasn’t fully deposited to the Project Hope account as Janet and I wished. Rather than helping cancer patients with the money raised during an event which I funded entirely from my own pocket and for which Janet had to literally die, the Board voted against our wishes and designated half of the money raised would go to the executive director (ED) (June 6, 2005 Board meeting minutes). How would the Board feel if I decided, after the fact, they should help pay for Janet’s memorial since they were able to use it as a rather successful fund raiser?
Failure to notice obvious signs the person they hired to be the ED is unqualified for the position. Hired part time, the ED has been working 40+ hours a week since her start date. After 2 months of this insanity the Board is still of the opinion this is a good sign, something worthy of praise and some sort of honorable show of dedication to the organization. Additionally, an absolutely vital Resource Buddy staff person resigned after not getting paid and being treated poorly by the new ED. This left no one to coordinate health care providers with cancer patients and monitor their care. There were very few people outside of family and friends who had a direct line to Janet during the weeks before she died. The Resource Buddy had one of these lines. Janet dedicated many hours in the months before she died toward educating the Resource Buddy about her vision for the position and the organization. All this effort…gone.
The new ED’s communication skills have upset a number of key volunteers, myself included, who had provided tens of thousands of dollars in valuable service donations to the point they will no longer offer those services pro bono. Cherubim Foundation must now find other vendors and pay for these services, drawing further resources away from helping cancer patients. In my case, I pulled all technical support. No sense in being demeaned for the effort.
The new ED is replacing all software within the organization for reasons that fail to enhance the organization’s operational capabilities and in fact, for several applications, significantly diminish operational capabilities. The effort to make these replacements started well before my eventual decision to pull all technical support. It is likely these wasteful software replacements will require hardware upgrades as well. There is too much detail with this particular point to include here. Suffice it to say the new ED is hard at work spending money to replace things that work very well but which she does not understand. And doing this through the most expensive channels. With my connections in the industry, I was able to acquire legally licensed copies of any needed proprietary software for around 15% of retail cost. Anything else they needed, I or one of my consultants would custom build for the organization. When I pressed for an explanation on this point, I was informed by the Board my contributions in these matters were unwelcome.
The new ED has shown little interest in or capability for taking time to learn what Cherubim Foundation was doing so successfully for the past six years. Its the definition of organizational competence to first figure out how things work before deciding what to change. Rather, since day one this ED has been diligently reinventing the wheel, the fulcrum and the lever. When an ED, a consultant or a new Board member declares vital and pervasive portions of the organization need to be scrapped a responsible Board would ask for justification beyond “its not what I used before”, “its unfamiliar to me” or “I don’t understand it.” What is the Board’s plan when new employees or the next ED is hired and they don’t understand the office systems? Reinvent again? Stable, secure, integrated, mature and extendable systems for contact management, provider, participant, volunteer and donation tracking, web site maintenance and email have been scrapped and are being written anew. The systems I put in place were high quality solutions written by professionals and 100% free. The replacements I’ve seen proposed involve the purchase of several thousand dollars worth of proprietary software and will be developed by a sales manager from a large telecommunications company and his friends. Again, when I pressed for an explanation the Board characterized my questions as “micro-managing” the ED and something this Board wasn’t going to allow.
When I was finally granted audience with the Board, no one could say they had actually seen a resume for the new ED. I asked to see her resume and as yet the Board has not produced one. As best as I can determine, the new ED has never worked as an ED before. After reviewing the job descriptions which were drafted for the ED position before Janet died (I was part of this review. Janet had me read through them several times and we discussed many aspects of what would be required of the ED.), I can say the new ED isn’t qualified to fill the position based on what the organization was looking for. I would like to know how many candidates the Board considered for this position. I can find no indication that they interviewed, let alone considered, more than the one they hired. Does the new ED have prior ED experience? If so, how much, when and where? Were references contacted? In what subject area is her graduate degree?
The Board has dismissed my concerns as misplaced anger at Janet’s death and, to use their word, “sabotage.” By making such an accusation, it is the Board’s position that what they are doing is acceptable and what I’m doing is wrong. I believe they have that backward. If you were to report the car accident described in the opening story, would you consider that “sabotage” against the offending driver? When we sued Dr. Pam Kimbrough for malpractice and won, did we “sabotage” the doctor’s career by exposing the harm she had caused? How much greater would the suffering have been among frightened cancer patients if we hadn’t raised the standard of care for OB/GYN’s, caused the State Board of medical examiners to change the way they review doctors and changed how Dr. Kimbrough thinks about colds vs. cancer? The Board’s perspective is a selfish one and their psychology 101 grief diagnoses and fear are weak attempts to shield their actions from my loyalty to a promise and passion to a goal, a vision and a dream. By weakening the organization they have diminished the quality and quantity of services provided to cancer patients. This is why I am blowing the warning whistle. Any emotion I may have is appropriately directed at the Board for letting such a wonderful organization rapidly deteriorate under their care.
Before I can consider supporting the current Board of Directors and Cherubim Foundation, I need to see the following actions completed. There are other changes I will need to see based on how the issues of fact evolve. If, as they are certainly free to do, the Board rejects the changes outlined below and/or retains the transformed business model they have put in place for Cherubim Foundation, at the very least they must stop associating Janet’s name, story and image with their new goals and business practices.
The new ED needs to resign or be fired. The Board must then engage in a thorough recruiting campaign to find a qualified and experienced executive director chosen from a pool of candidates.
A written policy must be established to clearly define a fair, non-discriminatory request for bid process and implemented as standard operational practice.
A qualified Resource Buddy must be hired in accordance with the Caring for Colorado grant for this position, i.e. bilingual in Spanish.
Confirmation from the Board that all the money donated in response to Janet’s passing and during her Celebration of Life memorial this past May 16 has been restored to the Project Hope account for the benefit of cancer patients as Janet wished and that this deposit be reflected in the financial statements.
The Board must draft and approve a code of ethics and conduct for both the Board and staff. In addition to a robust conflict of interest clause, this should include provisions which prevent Board members, their family members and staff personnel from being compensated by Cherubim Foundation or participants when the Board member, family member or staff personnel provides professional services to any participant. This should hold for some period of time (six months at least) following the conclusion of the participant’s relationship with Cherubim Foundation or the Board member/staff person’s resignation from Cherubim Foundation. Otherwise, the organization risks the appearance of simply being a referral and income source for the Board member, family member or staff personnel’s private practice. The code of ethics must be published to their web site and all current and future Board members and staff personnel must sign a copy to be kept on file.
The Board members voluntarily adopt provisions of the American Competitiveness and Corporate Accountability Act (Sarbanes-Oxley Act) in an effort to reestablish Cherubim Foundation’s reputation for accountability. Several initiatives are already in play to extend Sarbanes-Oxley to apply to nonprofit corporations. It would help if Cherubim Foundation is already there when such initiatives become law. In particular, the Board must acknowledge that Board meeting minutes not only reflect the intentions of Board, they are official records of Board business and decisions. These provisions must be published to their web site and all current and future Board members must sign a copy to be kept on file.
I am no longer surprised by what this Board does. This Board has to re-learn that hard work first and good intentions second made Cherubim Foundation successful. They have lost sight of the fact that since Cherubim Foundation was incorporated much larger organizations have been working against it – pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, insurance companies, other non-profits as well as numerous professional organizations opposed to many of the services offered by Cherubim Foundation’s network of providers. Facing this, Cherubim Foundation had to run its business to impeccable standards. This and its mission distinguished Cherubim Foundation from anything else that is out there.
No one on the current Board recognized, let alone understood, the innovative business model Janet and I forged in 1997 and 1998 and which eventually got Cherubim Foundation past its 6 year anniversary. If they had, they wouldn’t have meekly stepped aside as the ED gutted the ship. Instead, this Board is letting Cherubim Foundation sink to the level of just another nonprofit that occasionally provides a little help to some people while it wastes time with public political agendas and money on dancing bologna. Sounds like a regular corporation to me and not an organization capable of being the difference that makes a difference.
I’m embarrassed for the Board that they couldn’t find a qualified ED who could do for money one tenth of what a terminally ill elementary school music teacher did exceptionally well for free. They should have invested what ever time was necessary to find a qualified candidate – 6 months, 9 months, what ever was necessary rather than choosing the one candidate from a pool of one. That they handed her sweeping power and full time responsibilities for a part time position has set the stage for failure. Have they hired someone who wants to learn how to be an ED and this Board has given her that opportunity at the expense of Cherubim Foundation and the cancer patients seeking help? If they consciously chose to use Cherubim Foundation as a training environment to launch someone’s ED career, it is irresponsible of the Board to take such a hands-off approach to the daily management of the organization. If it wasn’t a conscious choice, than that’s not good either. My overall impression is the Board has let personal affinity and emotion drive their decisions on this matter rather then their corporate responsibility to the organization and moral obligation to the cancer patients Cherubim Foundation was created to serve.
I really don’t expect the Board roll with any of the changes I propose much less acknowledge the issues behind them. To them, I’m just an annoyance, distracting them from their big picture thoughts. If anything, I expect them to continue to diagnose and blame me for shinning light on their actions. I have fought as best I know how, my friends. I have spent many hours and lost much sleep (and weight) struggling to find a way through this. With an unresponsive Board in place, I was in a no win situation. By joining the Board, I would have been one vote among eight and ethically bound to confine Board business to the Board room. By walking away and saying nothing, the burden on my conscience for having abandoned Janet and failing to alert family and friends to what I found would have been unbearable. So I did what I could. I whooped and hollered and stomped my feet trying to get the Board’s attention. I have failed. The light that was kindled within Cherubim Foundation back when it was little more than an idea has gone out. It has become yet another aspect of Janet’s life that is disintegrating and I’ve learned to accept that.
I will concede one point of anger I have with this Board’s actions. In the darkest moments of Janet’s battle – the times where she was most sick and feeling scarred, poisoned and unattractive – she would cry and despair over having to walk through fire while others profited from her suffering. It took every ounce of will and creativity I had to help her through these moments and each time it was just barely enough. These were such low points, it didn’t matter who it was or that they may have cared, we had seen much help disappear once the money was gone. It was from these moments that the idea of Cherubim Foundation was forged, that no woman would have to suffer so for the want of a few dollars. I cannot count the number of times $10 made the difference. To watch this Board divert money raised by Janet’s death, squander money on expensive software, outsource extravagant strategic hand holding sessions for planning and who know what else, all I see are hundreds of women fighting cancer in the dark who’s lives won’t be made a little more comfortable for want of a few dollars. Yes, this makes me angry.
The sense of frugality and dedication to finding the best and negotiating its donation is at the heart of what made Cherubim Foundation successful. Apparently, unlike past boards, the current Board lacks the skill to make this happen. Unfortunately, this and other core values are no longer part of Cherubim Foundation. Who on this Board is willing to face a cancer patient and say “You will need to suffer a little more because we need to replace things that do work with different things that might work.” Are any of the Board members so sure of their actions they are willing to describe to the cancer patients they claim to help exactly how a $2,500+ strategic planning meeting translates into easing their pain? If this is how the current Board intends to show their respect and love for Janet’s work, I wish they’d stop. Its offensive.
I’ll waste no more energy on this Board’s morphed and diminished organization and focus my efforts instead toward the future. I will not, however, abandon Janet’s name and story and shall remain attentive to their abuses of her work. My one consolation in all this is that at least I know where the source of the light that kindled Cherubim Foundation can be found. I know that it is alive and safe. I know that, if necessary, from all the ashes to settle in the months since Janet’s death, a new, stronger organization can arise and carry her vision forward. I can promise this to each of you. I can promise this to Janet.
Comments or questions:
Comments may be sent privately to my email address above. Updates will be posted as necessary.
2005.11.08 – Edited for clarity, minor grammar changes.