Thursday, December 22, 2011
The Nonprofit Quarterly reports on a dispute among members of a Hmong community center in Wisconsin. Individuals paid an initial $1,000 to become members of the organization. Included in membership privileges was the right to hold funerals at the facility. When the organization later fell into financial difficulty, it went back to the members and said they would have to contribute further to retain their memberships and the attendant rights. Some of the members sued, claiming breach of an enforceable contract.
What I find interesting about this case is the likely blending of law and equity. I tell my nonprofit law students that in the U.S. the strong trend has been toward resolving nonprofit difficulties and disputes through the application of corporate law, but that equity pops up at unpredictable times and in unpredictable ways. This is certainly true when it comes to disputes among members or between memberships and boards. The corporate law answer would be to look in the organization's governing documents to see what they say about members' rights and perhaps to assess whether any enforceable contract exists. Equity, however, would demand that the organization treat its members fairly.
In this case, the judge made the wise decision to send the parties to mediation. If all goes well, s/he will not have to decide whether to apply law or equity or, as often is the case, some jumbled combination of the two.