When association leadership loses its way

Is it OK for a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit association to make large profits, pay its four top executives well over $1M per year, and yet do little for its members?

In an astonishing article, Professor Dorothy Vera Margaret Bishop, FRS FBA FMedSci, who is Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology and Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford shares an example of an association that’s guilty of all of the above.

“The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) makes humongous amounts of money from its journal and meetings, but spends very little on helping its members, while treating overseas researchers with indifference bordering on disdain.”
—Dorothy Vera Margaret Bishop, Has the Society for Neuroscience lost its way?

Why the SfN lost its way

Bishop’s article gives the financial details, also available from the association’s 2016 (latest) IRS Form 990. To summarize, the Society for Neuroscience:

  1. Makes millions of dollars profit from its journal submission fees, while claiming these fees only cover “a portion of the costs associated with peer review.”
  2. Makes millions of dollars profit from its annual meeting.
  3. Despite its stated claim of wanting to support neuroscience globally, uses little of its enormous reserves (more than $100M at the end of 2016) to “offer grants for scientists in resource-poor countries to buy equipment, pay for research assistants or attend meetings. Quite small sums could be transformational in such a context. As far as I can see, SfN currently offers a few awards, but some of these are paid for by external donations, and, in relation to their huge reserves, the sums are paltry.”

This is a classic example of a non-profit whose leadership lost its way and created an association whose commitment to membership is secondary to leaderships’ focus on pursuing profit (and, presumably their own consequently generous salaries). As Bishop says:

“…instead of being an organisation that exists to promote neuroscience and help their members, the members are rather regarded as nothing but a source of income, which is then stashed away in investments.”

The Plan and The Reality

Reading the Society’s lofty Mission and Strategic Plan, I’m struck by how little it reflects the Society’s actual operational decisions that Bishop and I describe. In 2016 alone, the association stashed away $6M out of $33M of revenues. Yet the 8,000 word document spends far more time describing how diversity and equity issues will be handled (worthy goals for sure) and the importance of seeking funding from external sources, than providing any kind of cold hard cash support to its less well-off members.

Founded in 1969, the Society for Neuroscience began — as every association does — as a group of people wanting to further a particular profession, the interests of those engaged in the profession, and the public interest. Half a century later the Society’s leadership has apparently forgotten its founders’ reasons for existence, and concentrates on self-perpetuation and expansion over fully supporting the community of practice.

Remembering that an association is, at its core, a set of agreements in people’s minds about supporting a community that is important to them is key to keeping the association relevant to the community it serves. Sadly, the Society for Neuroscience leadership has lost its way.

I wish the Society for Neuroscience was was the only association whose leadership has forgotten that the core purpose of an association is to serve its members. Unfortunately, in my experience, such associations are common these days. Do you have other examples to share? Feel free to do so in the comments below.