The 162-page Freeh report about Penn State’s role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal cites one possible cause for what now seems like a coordinated cover-up by the university: “a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus.” In other words football was not just another sport. It embodied the university’s identity, mindset and most cherished values. It drove revenue and hence, strategy, reputation and operations.
To a folklorist who has been a student of culture all her life, like me, a “culture or reverence” sounds great in principle. It suggests people bound together by a body of shared values and beliefs. It connotes a community with a strong sense of identity; one that can differentiate between good and evil, sacred and profane rather than live in indifference and in an environment in which everything is leveled into an amoral and dull uniformity. They know who they are and what has meaning for them. Great! So when does “reverence” become a blinder that blunts judgment and justifies bad things for its own perpetuation? The answer in this case would be: when great football programs and elite reputations become more important than the welfare of children; when reverence becomes a substitute for critical judgment and discernment.
I would add another dimension and this is, institutionalization. When reverence for football translates into business strategy and institutional interests, while it may represent a particular manifestation of this culture, it is not the same as the living culture that is experienced through patterns of activity and thought; norms, rituals, beliefs, values and symbolic structures that give these meaning. Just for the sake of clarity, I am calling this “institutional” cultural reverence.
Sure the Nazi atrocities or the Penn State cover-up are extreme examples of institutional reverence replacing critical with default judgment. But on a smaller scale, institutional reverence is the status quo in most established organizations and the bane of systems-based change and innovation. Why else would a scientific society with a rapidly dwindling membership continue to allocate the largest percentage of its efforts and resources to governance, while cutting other functions that are essential to business and market development, and the increase of member value?
To solve the problem of attrition this association did not re-examine its value to members but chose, instead, to cut expenses. And this is where it gets interesting and revealing. The association first reduced its staff by half. It then cut member benefits (educational events, books, training manuals, etc.), and sold various assets. At the same time, however, it continued its commitment to generous perks for its volunteer board and cadre of perennial “insiders” among its membership elite. For example, it continued to earmark something like $100K for “recognition and awards,” and a comparable amount for its three lavish “leadership retreats” per year—all held at distant, exclusive resorts. A feeble attempt at substituting one of the retreats with a virtual meeting was met with outrage by the association’s volunteer leadership and was quickly scrapped. The choice the association made was clear. Governance and institutional interests were more important than the value they delivered to members, for example by committing their efforts and resources to helping them solve problems that stood in the way of their success. While attrition continues, the association never questions its basic framework of priorities and assumptions that they consider the norm.
Economist and Business Environment specialist, Rick O’Sullivan, defines the conventional association assumptions about the role, norms and practices of association governance in this way: “Membership is about governance, not about revenues. …American concepts of nonprofit governance, transparency, rule of law, and volunteerism …define the relationship between an association and its members.”
Well, consumers today value quick and targeted solutions to problems and collaboration far more than participating in voluntary governance. An entrepreneurial, demand-oriented organization would address the same issue of attrition facing the scientific society, very differently, for example: by finding out the root causes, ensuring that they understood and solved members’ key problems, reinventing their value proposition and business model to better resonate with their customers’ needs preferences for learning, working and communicating. But when your governance systems and existing membership models cross from tools to non-negotiable objects of reverence it is difficult to see the world through the eyes of your customers and your organization as the vehicle for delivering value. This is when institutional reverence limits options for new solutions and is at odds with the very member value you were founded to deliver.