The Most Frustrating Things About Sunlight’s Sun Setting

So, Sunlight Foundation is possibly shutting its doors in the coming months following an unsuccessful search for a new Executive Director. I’ve been livid about the announcement for the past few days, but not because Sunlight might go away (as sad and as unfortunate as that is). I’m instead upset about what appears to be ineptitude by the Sunlight board to do its job effectively, a problem that goes back to at least 2014 but appears to have now gotten so bad that the board is dragging the organization down into oblivion. As a non-profit and civic tech community, we need to at least learn from this experience to avoid it happening again in such a dramatic and destructive fashion.

(Some caveats before I launch in. I have intentionally not consulted friends currently working at Sunlight or Sunlight alumni on these thoughts, largely to avoid stressing them out further. As such, there are almost certainly nuances I am missing and/or inaccuracies in what follows, and I’ll do my best to flag what is my perception/opinion versus established fact.)

Lesson #1: Founder’s syndrome is a real thing

I don’t know Mike Klein; I only met him once at a lovely Sunlight holiday party at his house a number of years ago. But it seems fair to say that this whole mess might have been managed better with increased awareness around the dangers of “founder’s syndrome,” where non-profit (co)founders make bad decisions out of personal affection for (or unhealthy amounts of control over) an organization. Klein’s recent blog post and decision to seek a merger are part of a series of seemingly whipsawed reactions following Ellen Miller’s retirement in 2014. When I left Global Integrity in 2014, I wrote about the risks of founder’s syndrome there that I had begun to sense. I’m not saying I’ve been any smarter than the leadership team at Sunlight in the interim, but the current crisis seems to suggest that founder’s syndrome is indeed a very real risk to non-profits, especially as they approach the 10-year mark. We need to watch for it and tackle it to the ground (even if that’s extremely painful and bloody) before it presents a mortal threat to organizations.

Lesson #2: Leadership transitions are really hard

I left Global Integrity around the same time that Ellen Miller retired from Sunlight. The processes were very different: from start to finish the leadership transition at Global Integrity lasted about 6 months and did not involve an external search firm. At Sunlight, it was nearly a year and a half (not all of it public), involving search firms and extensive sequencing and choreography. Yet the selection of Chris Gates to be the new head of Sunlight in 2014 was baffling (at least to me) from a fit perspective. Many fans of Sunlight (including me) worried privately that it wouldn’t work out…which is sadly what came to pass and ultimately set the stage for the current crisis. There’s no magical formula for getting leadership transitions right at non-profits (fast vs. slow, search firm vs. no firm, etc.) but, boy, is it fraught with risk. Non-profits need to constantly be thinking about succession planning, even in their early years, to avoid launching a leadership transition without adequate alignment between the board and senior management.

Lesson #3: Boards don’t always have the right strategic answers

There are many confusing and surprising arguments offered in Mike Klein’s rationale for shuttering parts of Sunlight and merging others. I find a number of them flawed interpretations of the current state of play in civic tech. Among them:

“We are aware that the robust maturation of technology over the past decade has — happily but substantially — reduced the urgency of Sunlight’s early role as a leading transparency innovator.” If “maturation of technology” refers to a limited set of web- and API-based techniques and tools, perhaps. But what about the myriad of vanguard technological approaches on offer to civic tech organizations today that weren’t present at Sunlight’s founding, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, and the Internet of Things? There are very few civic tech organizations leveraging those tools and techniques currently, and Sunlight Labs could have made an enormous contribution by leading the civic tech community into the next decade with those tools.

“In addition, the board had to recognize that Sunlight’s initiating objective— to build support for better legislation against and regulation of the power of money in politics— has been significantly limited by the US Supreme Court’s 5-4 Citizens United decision.” So Supreme Court justices never die or retire? Anchoring one’s organizational strategy on a nearly split decision Supreme Court case that could be revisited under a future court seems, well, potentially short-sighted.

“The board has not found a candidate for executive director who persuaded us of both a compelling new strategic vision and of their capacity to lead Sunlight to its achievement.” I have no idea who applied or who didn’t for the Sunlight gig. But it was still one of the most exciting, plumb jobs in civic tech, and I find it really hard to imagine that some pretty superstar candidates didn’t pitch the board on a compelling vision for the future. Another way of interpreting this assertion might be, “We went through the motions of recruiting but were always biased towards shuttering the institution.”

Whether I’m right or wrong on these specific points is less the issue; what’s the more important take away is that boards (whether non-profit or corporate) don’t always have the right answers to important strategic questions. There needs to be a constant, healthy tension between the board and senior management on these questions, and sometimes the board needs to defer to management on important strategic pivots. Put another way: boards are often well-intentioned but too out of touch with an organization’s day-to-day operations to have a monopoly on wisdom, especially in the non-profit context (where they are rarely compensated and potentially less inclined to dedicate time to learning about the organization from top to bottom). I say this as someone who sits on multiple non-profit boards and likely frustrates his counterpart colleagues in senior management!

To sum up: the collapse of Sunlight feels, tragically, more self-induced than anything external, and I lay a healthy chunk of blame at the feet of the board. If nothing else, let’s try and learn from this painful moment in a way that strengthens peer organizations (and their boards) moving forward.