Tuesday, May 22, 2012

When Large Organizations Go Crazy

The American public seems to be losing patience with large organizations that abandon their principles or do crazy things. Two current examples:

  • The national organization behind Race for the Cure decided in January to restrict cancer screening, pulling it out of many towns in a weird sort of political statement. There was a vast public outcry and the organization was forced to backtrack, but it had already shredded its reputation (and lost several board members). Participation in the Philadelphia Race for the Cure had been reliably huge for more than 15 years, but when it was held this month, attendance was so bad that race organizers were pleading for people who could not attend to register anyway. This only reinforced an air of desperation surrounding the event that suggests its future may be in doubt.
  • The Heartland Institute has always presented itself as being skeptical of science, but it went too far when it paid for a billboard that implied in no uncertain terms that science is the moral equivalent of murder. The billboard was covered over after one day, but its message was so obviously wrong that employees and board members resigned, sponsors demanded their names removed, and this week’s conference, which was supposed to be its big event of the year, had most of its program canceled and is having attendance literally in the tens.

In years past, it seems to me, we would have given these two organizations and others like them several years, or longer, to work their problems out. Now, an organization that does something big that comes across as petty and sneaky or that simply goes crazy has just a matter of days for damage control. Organizations that wait too long or respond too aggressively are toast.

Perhaps it is better this way. Why hold on to an organization that has crossed the line and doesn’t seem to have a clue about what it did wrong? In the case of the Heartland Institute, who would really want to be seen at all in connection with an organization that associates itself so prominently with a mass murderer?

People are being more decisive in these matters partly because affiliated institutions are being more decisive, pulling back when controversy strikes to protect their own reputations. When a national organization loses several board members and long-term sponsors at once, it no longer seems like a wild guess that it has lost its way. But part of the change, I am sure, is just the time pressure that almost everyone feels. The 15,000 people who stayed home from the Race for the Cure last week didn’t just avoid the ugly political connotations of the event. They also saved themselves a seven-hour ordeal on a Sunday morning. That’s seven hours to put toward something else that matters. An organization that’s asking members of the public to give up half a day, or three days, has to hold itself to a higher standard. These days, it doesn’t take much for people to discover that they have something else to do.