July 14, 2014

Guests on the 06-23-14 Diane Rehm Show were talking about the U.S. government and its benign neglect of situations in the Middle East, e.g., Syria, which has helped cause the current (new) crisis in Iraq.

Then I started thinking about benign neglect in the nonprofit sector. For example:

  • A small arts organization that’s had an annual operating deficit for about a decade. And then borrows money from the bank and board members. So the accumulated deficit keeps growing. All the training and good plans from the executive director doesn’t get board members to act. The board chair thinks sending emails suffices. Every pay period, the E.D. chooses what not to pay.
  • Board members who don’t perform. Term limits that aren’t enforced. Board members who threaten to take their big money and leave if they don’t get their way. Constant struggles to manage all this – and, of course, the board continues its dysfunctional behavior because it’s “too hard (?)” to make change.

Let’s just ignore stuff and hope it gets better. Let’s not even decide we’re ignoring stuff. We’ll just not pay attention. Or something. Hoping there’s a magic pill around the corner? Or not even hoping for that?

So I looked up “benign neglect” in Wikipedia. Oh wow. Benign neglect actually is a formal policy! Proposed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan during Nixon’s administration. At the time (1969), Moynihan was President Nixon’s urban affairs adviser.

Moynihan sent a memo suggesting, “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’ The subject has been too much talked about, too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades.” The policy was intended to ease the tensions caused by the Civil Rights movement.

Well, that worked well, eh? We are not a post-racial society. We now have new state laws that inhibit voting by people of color. Poverty is higher than ever – and mostly not white people are poor. Schools are more segregated than ever.

And today, it seems like the middle class (the 99%) appear to be reaping the rewards of benign neglect.

But back to the nonprofit sector. The benign neglect that stops you from creating an effective board. The benign neglect of how you treat your donors. And on and on and on…

I wonder: Does anything really benefit from benign neglect?

Filed under: Nonprofit Management

About Simone Joyaux

A consultant specializing in fund development, strategic planning, and board development, Simone P. Joyaux works with all types and sizes of nonprofits, speaks at conferences worldwide, and teaches in the graduate program for philanthropy at Saint Mary’s University, MN. Her books, Keep Your Donors and Strategic Fund Development, are standards in the field.

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