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Occupy’s Incompetence

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Who could have guessed that a bunch of Occupy anarchists who don’t trust government or institutions or systems of real accountability would prove a complete disaster with money? Oh right, me. Their Rolling Jubilee operation was supposed to buy off people’s debt. They raised a quick $600,000. What’s happened since?

Initially, Rolling Jubilee was forthcoming. It made two purchases of medical debt, one in November 2012 and a second in January 2013. For each, they provided a summary of the key statistics that was easy to scan and helpful. Those summaries allow you to see that so far, Rolling Jubilee has spent $28,079 buying debt, which provided relief to 1108 people. This is a mere 4.6% of the total funds Rolling Jubilee has raised. So it’s legitimate to wonder what they’ve been doing with the rest of the dough in the meantime.

They also held two board meetings, one in January and the second on February, but the minutes were skimpy, troublingly informal and fell well short of basic requirements (no indication of who submitted them, whether there was a quorum; contrast the Rolling Jubilee record with those from this legal guide for not for profit board minutes).

But the big problem seems to be the lack of a proper governance structure. A board, be it for a profit-making organization or a not-for-profit, is not supposed to be identical to the people running the venture. It is designed to oversee the people doing the work and to serve as a check and control on them (boards will typically have some key people from the organization involved, such as the executive director, but the majority are not in operating roles). However, the titles of the individuals listed as board members are all corporate officer titles: President, Vice President, Secretary, etc. At this remove, it looks as if Rolling Jubilee has an inherently defective governance structure, with the board too involved in the actual work of Rolling Jubilee to provide proper oversight (no one will put on his board member hat and find fault with the work he did while wearing his Rolling Jubilee worker bee ha).

And there red flags even in what little we can see of what Rolling Jubilee has been up to. They’ve publisheda statement of financial and control policies, and some of them are troubling. Individual board members have the power to spend significant amounts of Rolling Jubilee funds and make binding commitments:

– All Board members are authorized to individually sign checks up to $10,000. Checks greater than $10,000 require a signature of a second Board Member.
– All Board members are authorized to enter into contracts for activities that fall within the purview of the organizational mission.

To put it politely, a $10,000 signing authority for a board member is simply unheard of. And in general, there’s no reason in any organization for lots of people to have spending authority — let alone board members who, as we see above, should not have executive authority. It’s preferable to have as few people as possible empowered to disburse funds (the board minutes also show that unnamed tech people are handling PayPal, and funds can be disbursed from PayPal, so it may well be that people in addition to the board members are disbursing funds).

I spoke to someone who sits on the board of a foundation with a $100 million endowment and has also been on the boards of smaller not for profits. When I told him that Rolling Jubilee gave board members signing authority up to $10,000, the first sentence out of his mouth expressed shock. The second had the words “criminal” and “attorney general” in it. An investigative journalist who looked at the financial policies page said by e-mail: “This is shocking. They’re either corrupt or incredibly incompetent, either way this is appalling.”*

I doubt there is real malfeasance going on here, although it’s possible. Much more likely is complete stinking incompetence, which is what you’d expect of an organization with so few governing rules. My guess is that everyone stopped showing up for meetings and no one knows what they are doing and there are like 2 people figuring it all out.

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