SMRR: Founder’s syndrome and even bigger problems

In Tuesday’s post I tried to chronicle how it came to be that for the first time Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) endorsed an all anti-development slate. I say “chronicle” because I focused on the chronology and drew my conclusions from the facts and circumstances. But frankly, I was looking at the trees, not the forest.

The important question is not whether Susan Himmelrich got the third endorsement because of a deal with the supporters of Andrew Walzer or because of nine hours Himmelrich spent charming Bruria Finkel. More important is the overall context. How could the leaders of SMRR make their decisions with no sense of accountability to the diverse membership of SMRR?

There’s a concept, or a malady, called “founder’s syndrome,” a/k/a “founderitis,” that is well known in the world of nonprofit organizations. There are many definitions for this, but the basic idea is that the founders of an organization, who are, after all, usually responsible or an organization’s success, tend to consider the organization their own, or an extension of themselves, and as a result come to believe that they can do whatever they want, even when the organization has outgrown their living rooms.

Thirty-five years after SMRR’s founding, a core group of founders and other leaders from early on still run the organization. Frankly, they don’t feel like they owe anyone anything, whether it’s members who want to read the bylaws for themselves, members who disagree with the leadership, or even longtime SMRR leaders like Maria Loya, who had been on the Steering Committee for nine years but was nonetheless dumped unceremoniously when the committee voted to endorse Walzer six weeks before the election.

I can’t sum up “founder’s syndrome” better than the quote SMRR Co-Chair Patricia Hoffman gave to the Daily Press after the Steering Committee endorsed Walzer against her fellow committee member: “Of course it’s a little bit awkward but when we weighed what our opportunities were, they tilted in favor of [Walzer].”

File that in the “this hurts me more than it hurts you” department. Forget about Loya—you have to sympathize with the Steering Committee and how awkward they felt!

But founderitis in SMRR maxed out in the collective obliviousness to the impropriety of allowing Steering Committee members Denny Zane and Roger Thornton to make money from a candidate. The most valuable asset SMRR has is its endorsements. That asset needs to be protected. There can’t be the slightest suggestion that endorsements can be bought. Now there’s a lot more than a suggestion.

Any organization operating under generally recognized standards of good governance will have a clear, written set of rules about conflict of interests that would prohibit board members from such blatant violations of their fiduciary duties. The same thing goes for other conflicting financial interests, some of which involve gray areas, and not all of which are defined in the law. Steering Committee member Linda Sullivan works for the College yet voted on the endorsements for College board; is that okay? Not everything is clear-cut, and it’s a challenge to draw lines, but there’s no evidence that in 35 years the SMRR leadership has done anything to articulate clearly and in writing what’s okay and what’s not.

Why? Because they’re running the organization like it belongs to them. I’m sure that if members of the SMRR leadership are reading this, most of them still don’t understand how any of this could be a problem. For them it’s still 1979 and they’re out on the barricades. All for one and one for all. Stick it to the man.

Which is sad.

SMRR is a great organization. It struck me during the campaign that I was the candidate, perhaps with the exception of Pam O’Connor, who, after all, was the mayor, who most defended the current state of government in Santa Monica and, at least by implication, the accomplishments of the past 35 years, which were mostly due to SMRR. (Turned out not to be such a great strategy, but what the hell.)

SMRR has major structural problems that go beyond founder’s syndrome. By trying to be a commendably open, grassroots, membership organization, it’s left itself open to manipulation by outside groups and—perhaps worse than that—paralysis. Hundreds of new members signed up (and were signed up) to vote at last summer’s convention. This should have been great for SMRR, a real shot in the arm, a source of volunteers and future leaders. But the result was the opposite. Because of factionalism and bullet voting, no candidate for City Council received even a simple majority of votes, let alone the 55% required for an endorsement. Then there was the fiasco when Hoffman declared that there wouldn’t be a third ballot for the City Council endorsement, kicking the decision to the Steering Committee. Many members left the convention bitter and disaffected, and more became so after the Steering Committee made its endorsements.

I don’t know how to solve all those problems, but I know where to start.

Start with the basics of good governance: organizational transparency and clarity. Publish the bylaws. Publish minutes of Steering Committee meetings—including meetings of the Executive Committee. Create written standards for conflicts of interests, and written procedures for dealing with those conflicts. If, as it appears will be the case, the Steering Committee is regularly going to be making endorsement decisions, establish and publish clear procedures for that, too, including deadlines and timetables that candidates can rely on.

I’m sure the founders of SMRR hope the organization will be around 35 years from now. They will have to live rather long to know if that happens, but they can take actions now to make SMRR’s continued success more likely.

Next installment: Negative campaigning doesn’t work in Santa Monica. (That’s the good news.)

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “SMRR: Founder’s syndrome and even bigger problems

  1. Pingback: SMRR to members: go away | Santa Monica Next

  2. Pingback: SMRR to members: go away | The Healthy City Local

  3. Pingback: Gruber: SMRR, Founder’s syndrome, and even bigger problems | Santa Monica Next

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