PBSS: The New Nonprofit Leadership Challenge

by Sarah K. Williams

The recent attempted slaughter of the 18-member Board of the Rhode Island Amateur Ballet Advocacy Council (RABAC), by its newly hired Executive Director, during the organization’s annual retreat in Pawtucket, has sent shock waves through the nonprofit world. Although the Executive Director, Thomas R. Bonklin, was quickly arrested and charged with eight counts of murder, seven counts of attempted murder, and three counts of armed harassment with malicious intent, little has been reported about the events that triggered the shooting or about Mr. Bonklin’s mental state in the weeks leading up to the incident.

During the Retreat, in the course of an Executive Director’s Report that followed the approval of an unexceptional consent agenda, Bonklin was presenting a detailed overview of RABAC’s financial condition and the “big picture,” as he put it, concerning RABAC’s future. Bonklin had hoped to distinguish the Board’s stop-gap approach to the year’s financial challenges — a small operating deficit that might be overcome with increases in Annual Fund contributions — from a longer-term vision of and commitment to growing the Council’s budget through the development of an endowment.

According to survivors, Bonklin’s Powerpoint slides were exceptionally thoughtful, formatted using graphic elements and color schemes that followed the best practices identified by the Nonprofit Graphic Arts Council (NGAC) in their Nonproft Presentation Guide (2003), and visual representations informed by the latest writings by Edward Tufte. According to his life-partner, Dee van Aldington, Mr. Bonklin had worked on this presentation for several weeks, and this was confirmed by Lester Fenstemuffin, a member of the Executive Committee who survived a gunshot wound to the neck. Fenstemuffin told police:  “Tommy told us during the April Executive Committee Meeting that he thought the discussion of his presentation at the June meeting of the full Board would be a turning point for the organization this year. I don’t think most of us understood why he felt this way, but we try to support our ED  however we can,  so everyone just nodded OK.”

Unfortunately, as Mr. Bonklin began his presentation, and commented on the first few of the the seventy-three (73) slides he had prepared, he became aware of indifference on the part of some members of the Board. As he continued, he apparently became convinced that none of the members were paying sufficient attention. According to a spokesman for the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office, Bonklin continued until slide #24 when, the prosecution alleges, Bonklin quizzed the Board about something that had been presented on a previous slide — a practice warned against explicitly each year in the prefaces to Deegan and Deegan’s Best Board Presentations Annual. When there was no response from the Board, Bonklin began to breathe heavily, according to several survivors, and then removed a Baretta 93R pistol from his Museum of Work and Culture tote, shouting “Pay attention to this, you little bastards: Next slide please!!!”

Whether Bonklin waited for any significant period of time before firing is not clear, but before he put the gun away nearly half his Board lay dead and those who were alive were seriously wounded. According to Pawtucket Police, Bonklin was still attempting to finish the Powerpoint presentation when they arrived at 6:23 p.m.

The RABAC shooting was the third attempted massacre of a nonprofit Board by an Executive Director in 2009, and it lifts the veil on an embarrassing but pressing question facing nonprofits all over America. What is it about nonprofit structure and governance that might be causing, or at least promoting, this kind of violence?

According to Dr. Lindsey Flingerman of the Institute for the Study of Soft Money Diseases, at the Klepft Medical Center in Geneseo, New York, medical professionals around the country are finding a sharp increase in the number of cases of what they call “Pearls Before Swine Syndrome” (PBSS), and this almost exclusively in the nonprofit sector. In both its mild and severe forms, PBSS is characterized by exactly what we find in the Bonklin case: Someone in a leadership role terribly invested in the production and presentation of important information, for the purposes of thoughtful discussion and collaborative decision-making, who meets with profound disinterest and apathy on the part of an audience who he/she believes is by definition charged with attending to the presentation. The Syndrome is characterized by rising anger that often results in violence and/or nervous collapse, although Flingerman admits that outbursts like Bonklin’s remain rare.

What makes PBSS such a difficult diagnosis, says Dr. Lintz Kupkek, of the Association of Nonprofit Federations, is that “the person with the Syndrome need not be possessed of true pearls, and his or her audience need not be real swine.” Indeed, in the RABAC case, Mr. Bonklin’s Powerpoint presentation was mostly modeled on the diagrams in Maxine Donkelman’s classic From Finances to Governance and Back (1997). Similarly, the RABAC Board was known throughout the Rhode Island nonprofit community as among the most receptive, energetic and engaged Boards in the State. In a tribute to the deceased half of the RABAC Board, published in the Providence Journal, Mrs. Rinse Chesterton of the Rhode Island Foundation for Nonprofit Awarenes wrote: “In many ways, the Ballet Advocacy Council’s Board was every Executive Director’s dream, but it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Board really goofed in hiring someone with so little leadership experience in the nonprofit sector.”

Could the RABAC tragedy have been avoided if the Council’s Search Committee had been tougher about requiring nonprofit experience? Should Search Committees in nonprofits take special precautions when they hire Executive Directors in light of growing awareness of PBSS?

Although Thomas Bonklin’s credentials were very good — he had been a successful CEO of one local company, the CFO of a major regional corporation before that, and his devotion to amateur ballet was recognized as unparallelled in his state — he had never worked in a nonprofit setting. In the for-profit corporate world, of course, the sort of frustration he experienced during his Powerpoint presentation would likely have been assuaged by the reality of his executive salary and/or a recognition that attention from underlings is never disinterested and attention from superiors is the responsibility of the superiors themselves. In the nonprofit world, however, the Executive Director is poorly paid and is often hired with the expectation of the Board’s attention, despite the Board’s having little or know idea what that means in the mind of the prospective ED.

So what can Search Committees do to avoid the sorts of bloodshed that ruined the RABAC Retreat this year? We recommend a four-step “PBSS Filter Hiring Method”™:

1. Invite each prospective candidates to give a talk on some topic of clear importance to the full Board.
2. Invite only the Search Committee to the talk, but do not tell the candidate, so that attendance will be a disappointment to him/her.
3. During the candidate’s talk, all but one member of the Search Committee should appear severely apathetic or severely distracted (or both), while the remaining member (this can be, but need not be, the Chair) should lie in wait, preparing to ask a question about the most obviously trivial assertion made by the candidate during the talk.
4. A meal should follow at which a pleasant discussion with the candidate is attempted, while no mention is made of the Board’s behavior during the candidate’s talk.

Using this method, and based on the performance of the candidate under these conditions, the Search Committee can decide whether the candidate is at risk for PBSS and act accordinging. We agree with Dr. Kupkek who, in the latest issue of Nonprofit Lens (June-July, 2009), writes: “In the nonprofit sector, we are always trading off between excellence and safety. By using the PBSS Filter Hiring Method™ I think the Board members of many organizations may not minimize future operational headaches, but they will almost certainly minimize the probability of a violent death.”

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