News and analysis
April 07, 2013

Girl Scouts Employees Upset That Board Hasn’t Investigated Their Complaints

Employees at Girl Scouts of the USA who have complained to the board about their chief executive, Anna Maria Chávez, say they are upset that the trustees have not investigated their concerns.

They wonder why the board has not conducted a staff survey or interviewed the senior managers who have left.

“If nonprofit boards only value fundraising and operational results and do not value employees, their treatment, or work conditions, our sector is in real trouble,” an employee said in a letter to The Chronicle.

Anonymous Letters

Adding to their concerns is the system that the Girl Scouts set up to channel complaints to the board.

The employees have sent anonymous letters to the board about Ms. Chávez’s treatment of her staff, which they say has contributed to high management turnover, the abrupt dismissal of four people on the fundraising staff, and a climate of fear.

Connie Lindsey, president of the Girl Scouts board, says she backs Ms. Chávez and calls her the right person to head an organization that is undergoing a lot of changes.

“Individual conversations with staff is not best practice,” she says, “but we take our fiduciary responsibility very seriously.”

Ms. Lindsey, executive vice president at Northern Trust, notes that the Girl Scouts set up an ombudsman system, or confidential hotline, to channel employee concerns to the board.

Hotline Causes Worries

But the level of mistrust at the organization is so high that several employees told The Chronicle they would never call the ombudsman for fear word would get back to Ms. Chávez.

Their complaints:

Ms. Chávez said in a memo that the hotline was operated by a third party but did not name the vendor.

Unlike a hotline the Girl Scouts set up to take calls about financial misconduct, which has a toll-free number, this one offers a number with a New York area code.

The memo said callers would be asked to record their concerns, which would be transcribed and forwarded to the board, and encouraged to leave their names and contact information so the ombudsman could follow up.

“Do you think realistically if I used this option that I would be employed much longer?” one employee wrote in a letter to the board.

When asked who was recording the calls and whether any employees had used the hotline, Victor Inzunza, interim vice president for communications, said he could not comment because it was an internal matter.

Handling Discontent

Management experts say it can be difficult for a board to decide when and how to intervene in a case like this since trustees are generally advised to deal exclusively with the chief executive on personnel issues.

“The board’s focus needs to be on whether the CEO is leading an organization in a way that is driving the mission forward,” says Anne Wallestad, interim chief executive at BoardSource, a nonprofit that works to strengthen charity boards.

If he or she is doing that, she says, staff discontent is not necessarily a reason for board concern.

But boards also need to be able to judge when it’s time to cross that line, says Maureen Robinson, a consultant and writer about nonprofit boards.

“At some point, you have to shift the perspective from, 'It’s none of our business because it’s a management issue’ to, 'Now it’s becoming a governance issue because it’s starting to jeopardize the focus and quality of the work.’”

Send an e-mail to Suzanne Perry.