Blog, Crisis Management

When Good Organizations Do Stupid Things: The Humane Society and Michael Vick

One of the cardinal rules of Crisis Management is never, ever underestimate the capacity of all organizations—and, unfortunately, especially the best ones—to do stupid things.

A classic example is the following. In granting the wishes of terminally ill children, the Make-A-Wish Foundation is without a doubt one of the most commendable organizations ever founded. In 1996, the Foundation made the decision to grant the wish of a terminally ill teenager who was suffering from a brain tumor. The teen wanted to fly to Alaska so that he could shoot a threatened species, the Kodiak bear. If that wasn’t shocking enough, an upstanding organization was actually willing to help him do it!

In order to grant the teen’s wish as efficiently as possible, the Foundation contracted with Safari Club International to supply the child with airline tickets, taxidermy services, and a .340-magnum rifle. The storm of criticisms that followed almost forced the Foundation out of business. As Los Angeles Times writer Louis Sahagun put it, the program that has provided “thousands of families with joyful memories to help ease the depression of losing a child is (now) on the hit list of virtually every animal-rights group in the nation.” (“Boy’s Bear-Hunt Wish Puts Foundation in Cross Hairs,” May 11, 1996, Los Angeles Times)

Flash forward to the present. The Humane Society of America was one of the animal rights organizations that so roundly criticized the Make-A-Wish Foundation. For this very reason, what the Humane Society has done recently is every bit as bad as—and maybe even worse than—the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Immediately after Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons’ star quarterback who pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting dog fights, stepped down from the lectern from which he apologized for his heinous acts, a senior member of the Humane Society retrieved the notes that Mr. Vick used in making his apology. Instead of returning the notes to Mr. Vick, the Humane Society decided to auction them off on eBay so that the profits could be used to protect animals from further abuse. The notes sold for $10,200 on eBay.

But it gets worse. A woman paid $7,400 on eBay for 22 Michael Vick football cards that were apparently chewed up and slobbered on by two dogs. The woman admitted that she hadn’t even heard of Vick before he was indicted for dog fighting. The proceeds were also slated to go to the Humane Society.

What Michael Vick did is so bad and so wrong that it defies any understanding or sympathy whatsoever. But how could any organization—especially one that is supposed to uphold our highest ideals and serve as a role model—ever justify that it is acceptable to profit from such despicable and heinous acts?

That’s why I believe that what the Humane Society has done may be even worse than what the Make-A-Wish Foundation did. We don’t expect the Michael Vick’s and the Enron’s of the world to be good any more. But we do expect a lot more of organizations such as the Humane Society.

Why, then, do patently good organizations do such dumb and despicable things? What, in God’s name, were they thinking−or not thinking, as it were?

For one, like all of us, they cannot see themselves as others do. As a result, they readily fall into “group think.” They can’t really challenge the assumptions they hold in common. For another, many organizations that serve the public good get so caught up in themselves and their mission that they believe they can do no wrong. Since they are always struggling for money to stay afloat, they are constantly on the edge of survival. So when an opportunity comes along to serve the cause, they “bite.” (Pun intended!)

None of this, of course, justifies what they do. Not only is it is difficult to accept that good organizations are as capable of doing bad and stupid things as any of us, but we are stunned when they do.

I don’t know about you, but I would like to hear their apology. Maybe I could even auction it off on eBay!


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