… and no one is there to hear it, was there a sound?

I can't make up my mind.

Should I be following the meltdown of the ACLU for lessons in how a venerable nonprofit brand can self-destruct? Or is this internecine warfare merely “inside baseball” as one ACLU ally put it … real only to readers of the New York Times (which assiduously has aired the ACLU's dirty laundry) and relevant mostly to the staff, major donors and Board of the organization?

As reported by the Times, now we have a war of websites. For the defenders of the current regime, go to http://www.voicesfortheaclu.org/. For the critics, go to http://www.savetheaclu.org/.

What's an average dues-paying member of the ACLU supposed to think? Is the ACLU doing better than ever, with expanding programs, staff and money? Or is it compromising the very principles it was founded to champion? Is the present executive director a devious, unprincipled hustler? Or does the former executive director have too much time on his hands? And how would an average member reach an informed opinion?

A nonprofit brand has several audiences.

    • The inside members of the family, the board and staff who are most responsible for keeping the flame, and honoring the values and operating principles that define the brand in the first place.
    • The donors, big and small, foundations and individuals, who finance the enterprise, but who might or might not be privy to pertinent and accurate information about the stewardship being carried out (or not) by the current leadership.
    • The media, which forms its own views about that stewardship and reports or opines accordingly (that is, if it thinks anyone cares).
    • The public officialdom the brand seeks to influence (though arguably, the ACLU, to the extent it litigates, is more insulated from deteriorating reputation than a group that, say, chiefly lobbies).
    • The attentive public … the small cadre of Americans who might be inclined to support (or oppose) the brand in some active manner.

If I had to rate the contest today, on a scale of 1 to 10, with ten representing “The fate of the Republic is as stake,” I would give the following ratings:

    • For the inside family, clearly a 10. Egos, jobs, professional standing are on the line.
    • For the big donors, off the charts … possibly a 12! Wealthy donors expect to have their views prevail, and when they don't, watch out!
    • For the small donors, a 2 or 3. What do they know? They're essentially clueless. Consider their most likely sources of info — the ACLU's official newsletter and website, which are in the business of reporting the leadership worldview.
    • For the media, maybe a 6, because editors (and not just those at the NYT) tend to be sympathetic, after all, to issues like free speech and have some interest in the health and viability of fellow advocates for such causes.
    • For public officialdom, maybe a 5 at best if I'm an official who occasionally aligns with the ACLU (and I hate to see an ally suffer); otherwise I have too many other fish to fry to care about this trifle.
    • The attentive public, a 1 or 2 at best for erstwhile supporters. They know even less than the ACLU's current small donors, unless they're married to a major donor, board member, or staffer of the ACLU. But for ACLU-haters, a 8 or 9 … the anti-ACLU bloggers are having a field day.

So all in all, maybe this is just inside baseball. Maybe the ACLU will in fact file all the lawsuits and lobby all the positions its rank and file supporters would expect it to. Or maybe it will hedge its position here and there.

Maybe the situation underscores the basic unaccountability of nonprofits (to anyone other than their biggest half dozen donors). What is supposed to happen when a minority of duly selected governors of an organization (and/or informed, concerned outsiders) believe that the majority of duly selected governors of the organization are making fundamentally unsound judgments?

Maybe it reflects what happens in a monopoly situation — where's the competitor to the ACLU who's able to appeal: “The ACLU's off the tracks. Follow us instead.”

Or maybe the entire episode will make no sound at all. I hope this is the case. Because for those of us who have supported and celebrated the vital role of the ACLU, these are sad times. All we can do from the outside is hope no one is watching.

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