The recent controversy surrounding Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the leadership role of its founder, Nancy Brinker, illustrates the special challenges that confront the boards of nonprofits led by their founders, as well as why those organizations need strong, independent boards.
Ms. Brinker, who created the nonprofit in 1982, announced last month that she was stepping down as Komen's chief executive. Her decision is the latest in a series of turbulent events for the charity, which is still looking to undo the damage that followed its decision to withdraw, and then reinstate, grants to Planned Parenthood.
Although she will no longer be the organization's chief executive, Ms. Brinker will retain her lifetime seat on Komen's eight-member board. She will also be chairwoman of the board's executive committee, which is responsible for hiring her successor.
As a result, Ms. Brinker remains Komen's de facto leader. And the board seems unlikely to ask her to step down, even if such a move would help the organization.
Of the seven other directors, one has served on the board since 1982. The current chairman had also served since 1982, retired in 2010, and then rejoined the board this year after the previous chair stepped down in the wake of the Planned Parenthood controversy. Several other board members have long associations with the organization.
This small group, whose core members have been with Komen for decades, may be too closely associated with Ms. Brinker to overrule her in the event that her wishes conflict with what is best for the organization.
Effective nonprofit boards need to have the ability to stand up to the chief executive when necessary to maintain their independence and authority.
And when the top executive is the founder, the board's independence and authority are even more critical.
For many founders, the work of starting and running their organizations is all-consuming, requiring long hours and considerable personal sacrifice. Because they are so bound up in the venture, some founders have difficulty distinguishing between themselves and their organizations.
The board can't share that confusion.
A board and its members have a legal and moral obligation to act in an organization's best interests. They must act on behalf of the organization's mission, its supporters, and the people it serves. In turn, they have a responsibility to hold founders accountable for their stewardship of the organization and its resources.
Susan G. Komen for the Cure is no longer a start-up organization. As the leading international organization dedicated to finding a cure for breast cancer, Komen needs a board that is large enough to include diverse viewpoints, including those of its affiliates around the world. It needs board members with the skills and perspective to safeguard the organization's brand and reputation. But perhaps most of all, Komen needs a board that can distinguish between the organization and its founder.
The question is not whether Ms. Brinker should step down—that's for her and the board to sort out. The real question is whether Komen has a board that would know when it was time for Ms. Brinker to resign and that would be capable of asking her to.
Komen's former vice president for public affairs Karen Handel, who resigned following the Planned Parenthood controversy, recently spoke about Ms. Brinker's influence on the fight against breast cancer in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“Her organization has done more to move the fight against breast cancer forward than any other organization,” Ms. Handel said. “This organization is, in very large part, her. She is the organization.”
While many people may share that perception, it's simply not true. Susan G. Komen for the Cure needs a board that understands that—and so do many other organizations being run by founders.