From PALTA Executive Director Andy Loza: Suggestion to Add a Preamble and a New Practice to Begin Standard 1
Feedback on the following draft of a comment is welcomed. Feel free to borrow or adapt for your own comment.
How does the board’s exercise of judgment intersect with Standards and Practices?
Previously adopted organizational policies, Land Trust Standards and Practices (S&P), and other codes of behavior are no substitute for board judgement as applied to specific circumstances. These policies and codes provide crucial guidance to boards and reflect decades of collective wisdom applicable to most situations. However, the board may reasonably–and sometimes must–act contrary to these adopted policies and other rules in order to responsibly direct the land trust. Land trust board members and staff should understand that in adopting organizational policies, including commitments to follow S&P, the Accreditation Commission’s Requirements Manual, and other codes, they must not cede their ultimate decision-making responsibility as applied to specific circumstances.
This is not to say that deviating from adopted policies and codes is a trivial matter; it most certainly is not. Before a board or staff chooses to act contrary to adopted policies or codes of behavior, they should first deliberate whether to do so. They should consider whether short-lived benefits, wishful thinking, or groupthink might be clouding their judgment; they should consider undesirable precedents they might inadvertently be setting; they should consider whether consultation with someone outside the organization is desirable.
If, ultimately, a decision is made to deviate, the board or staff should (in most situations) document the reasons for the decision—to ensure rigor in their analysis and to help future boards and staff understand the organization’s past actions. (This may also be necessary in regards to indicator practices if the land trust is accredited or will be seeking accreditation.)
The revised S&P, as presently drafted, does not address this question, leaving it to users to infer what is and isn’t permissible regarding deviations. Some will take my view as presented; some will see S&P as written in stone, never to be diverged from; others will see my view as too conservative, rejecting the need to document anything more than perhaps the actual decision to deviate. These differing views lead to negative consequences:
- Not perceiving a need to engage in substantial deliberation or document their reasoning, some land trusts will deviate from S&P with great frequency and intensity and view their actions as being entirely consistent with S&P. The result is that S&P fails to reduce undue risky behavior by these organizations.
- Not wanting to be the person who caused their land trust to lose its accredited status, many individuals will choose to err on the side of strict readings of S&P (and the Accreditation Requirements) and the achievement of absolute conformance. Since they can never be sure what deviation will cause the loss of accreditation, they work in a perpetual state of low-level fear. The results are that: (1) Initiative, creativity, and independent thinking are inadvertently stifled; (2) actions suboptimal to conservation are taken, wasting donor dollars, etc; and (3) the land trust movement shifts from land trust, Alliance, and Accreditation Commission people working in prosperous partnership to an essentially hierarchical structure with land trust people acting more to “appease” Commission people and avoid getting in trouble than doing the right thing by conservation.
These negatives aren’t theoretical. Here and there, they are evident now. The question is whether this S&P revision can constructively minimize these phenomena going forward.
When I earlier introduced the concepts and concerns stated above (albeit in less detail), I suggested a remedy of addressing the matter in a preamble to S&P. This notion was warmly received by many. On further reflection, I believe the matter should be embedded both:
- in general form in a preamble that addresses the intersection of board judgement with organizational policies, S&P, and other codes of conduct, and
- with specificity in the opening practices of Standard 1.
Why the need to go beyond a preamble?
- People don’t read preambles, or, if they do, they do it once and seldom return.
- The concepts raised can be translated into practices–they are both operable and measurable.
- The practices are crucial to healthy land trusts and a healthy land trust movement.
Setting aside the task of the preamble for a moment, I offer the following draft text as a new first practice under Standard 1:
AA. Responsible Exercise of Judgement
- In taking actions, the board attends to the organizational policies, Land Trust Standards and Practices, and other codes of behavior it has adopted.
- The board deviates from its adopted policies and codes if and when, after deliberation, it determines that deviation is ethically sound in the particular circumstance and necessary or desirable to optimize conservation in the long run.
- The board contemporaneously documents the reasons for deviations from its policies and other codes of behavior.
- In its strategic planning, the board reviews its past and ongoing deviations from Standards and Practices.
A Few Ruminations about S&P
If everyone’s pet issues and concerns were addressed in S&P, the resulting document would be impractically long. We need a document sufficiently compact and straight-forward that most people can take its content in and be guided by it. In other words, be careful about calling for expanding the set of practices and consider whether all the ones presently listed are necessary or desirable.
Like the previous editions of S&P, the present draft contains a mix of practices addressing different issues; ethics, legalities, running an effective organization, supporting the land trust movement as a whole, optimizing public relations, etc. The practices include items that everyone can agree are absolutely crucial to being a responsible land trust; items that everyone aspires to but can’t necessarily achieve; items that people disagree as to whether they are black or white or aspirational; and items that some disagree with altogether–that it’s not appropriate for some or any organization. Ideally, the practices would be sorted to reflect these categories but a strategy is elusive as how exactly to sort the practices and, in any case, consensus might be difficult as to what items fit into what categories. I raise this as a conundrum for which I do not have an answer.