The FAMCare Blog

The Revolution and Sweet Briar College

Posted by George Ritacco on Jun 7, 2016 9:00:00 AM


NPQ recently reported that when the board of directors of Sweet Briar College decided it was time to throw in the towel the alumnae, students, and faculty staged an uprising. The board did not factor in the fidelity and energy of the dedicated alumnae who were now mature, accomplished, and professional women. The proud graduates of Sweet Briar, an educational nonprofit, utilized social media to mobilize stakeholders and essentially establish a new governance system…then used the courts to take over the board.


Since the existing board had no faith in the future of the college, an organized group of alumnae, faculty, and students submitted a whole new body of governing by-laws to a Virginia court that recognized not only the rights, but also the powers, of all the college’s stakeholders.


  • The new board’s governance committee approved the by-laws that acknowledged Sweet Briar College as a Trust under the laws of the state of Virginia.
  • Required judicial approval for any asset held by the Trust to be sold or transferred.
  • Recognized that the faculty is responsible for developing the curriculum.
  • Made the faculty and certain designated students voting members of the Board’s Working Committees.
  • Limited the power of the Executive Committee to act for the Board. Rather, the Executive Committee was empowered only to recommend items for consideration to the Working Committees. This was a complete reversal of the Board’s power dynamics.
  • The Working Committees were charged with developing and vetting ideas and proposals that are then presented to the entire Board for discussion and approval.


The demise of Sweet Briar College, one of the nation’s legacy, small single-sex colleges, would have been a travesty of neglect and poor governance. The new board recognized and implemented a more progressive and inclusive form of governance that all legacy nonprofits should take note of.


Our purpose in sharing the Sweet Briar story is to suggest to all legacy nonprofit boards that they carefully audit their current system of governance.

  • Has the power and prerogative of your board’s executive committee become exclusive?
  • Do you seek to include all stakeholders in decision making?
  • Have you identified all stakeholders as equally important and recognized everyone’s vested interests?
  • Is your nonprofit truly serving your constituents?
  • Is your organization still stable and enjoying a bright future?

If one of America’s legacy nonprofits like Sweet Briar College could wake up one day and realize that it was about to go out of business, an annual self-audit of the governance principles of every nonprofit would not be too often.

Topics: Insider, Case Studies

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