MNA in the news
The challenge of mandating transparency
Independent Record | Posted: Sunday, May 6, 2012 12:06 am | (0) Comments
(IR Editorial) We were pleased this week to see dismissed the civil lawsuit brought against Greg Mortenson by four buyers of Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” who claimed they were duped out of 15 bucks apiece by the promise that the book was completely accurate.
Now, we were among the thousands of Montanans and millions more people around the world who felt some sense of betrayal when news broke of Mortenson’s transgressions as head of the Central Asia Institute, which was begun with the noble goal of building schools, primarily for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But last month’s settlement, engineered by Attorney General Steve Bullock, which calls for repayment of $1 million by Mortenson to the CAI along with more independence on the group’s board of directors and much stricter oversight of its finances, was enough. We were satisfied when the settlement was announced in that it allows CAI to continue its worthwhile mission while making amends for financial mismanagement, and hopeful that it will serve as an example for others who take the reins of similarly well-intentioned operations. But aside from feeling slightly taken by the outfit, we don’t see a need to try and get back the $15 we spent on the book.
We’re hearing a lot these days, from a lot of various people, about transparency and accountability. And while we absolutely agree that the more open things are the better, it can be a tough line to define within the world of non-profits, or even more broadly, within the world of organizations, non- and for- profit, that receive public money or earn government contracts.
Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena is weighing legislation that would require a higher standard of disclosure from certain nonprofits. Lewis was spurred to action by questions about board actions at certain rural hospitals in his wide-ranging district, but he might well also be watching developments at St. Peter’s Hospital. He told the IR editorial board a few weeks ago that he’ll likely introduce a bill of some sort calling for more public disclosure of the actions and/or finances of some nonprofits, though what that bill will look like, and who exactly it will call to account, is still being determined as he collects feedback from constituents.
In a separate meeting with our editorial board, Liz Moore, director of the Montana Nonprofit Association, countered that while the association preaches accountability and transparency, there are limits to what many nonprofits can be reasonably expected to do in that arena. The nonprofit world is vast, and other than their shared nonprofit status, there’s very little in common between hospitals and, say, the local little league or arts museum.
We’ve certainly called, as has much of the Helena community, for more openness and transparency from our own hospital’s board of directors. But is that something that can be mandated? The IRS forms required of hospitals — and all nonprofits — are fairly extensive already, and boards of directors do have valid reasons for conducting certain elements of their business behind closed doors. On the other hand, the hospital here and in many cities is essentially a monopoly on health care, and it’s a community institution upon which we all depend.
In looking for a silver lining, the Mortenson case has emphasized the need for everyone in the non-profit community to be as transparent and above-board — and accountable to those they serve and who support them — as possible. That’s a good thing. What we’re less sure of is whether that transparency can be mandated beyond the extent to which it already is in a way that’s equitable and not over-reaching.