I Followed A Founder: a First Person Nonprofit Tale

Too often the focus on nonprofit executive transitions is about the departing executive. We're in the middle of interviewing 58 executives who followed founders or long-time leaders. Here's just one of their stories; we'll call her "Amanda":

The job was a dream come true. I had become executive director of a organization where my love and loyalty had lain for years. I had started out there as a volunteer there right out of college. After working at other nonprofits I had come back to this organization -- I'll call it CW -- as an employee, and had risen to the job of program director.

Less than a year after I became the executive director, the co-founders -- who had never fully left the picture -- fired me. They had brought in a consultant to "coach" me, and they hired him as the new ED. A year after that this wonderful organization crashed and burned.

This is my story:

CW started because the founder -- let's call her Bridget -- was an artist doing a major installation in a poor part of town. The local kids started hanging around and she and her husband -- I'll call him Colin -- starting doing art workshops with them. Bridget was a visionary and inspirational leader, and she and Colin did wonderful, brilliant work with the kids. I remember one day we all pretended we were birds of prey. Many times they and the kids wrote rap songs together.

Young artists flocked to Bridget, wanting to learn from her, wanting to be near her, wanting to be like her. I was one of them. I thought of myself as an artist . . . but as it turned out, I became the "useful" one. I bought the group's first computer, developed the first database, built the first website, and developed training for the many volunteers we attracted. I learned to write grant proposals.

I went to work in other nonprofits, growing my professional skills, and eventually became the Assistant Director of a $2 million nonprofit. All these years I was still volunteering for CW. And when CW finally had enough money to hire me as a part-time development director, I jumped at the chance, and supported myself doing freelance grantwriting for others part-time. I turned down job offers from many of those groups to keep working with CW.

The founders announce they are leaving

But after several years, Bridget and Colin decided the work was too exhausting and draining and they wanted to start their own family. They announced they were leaving and the board (Bridget and Colin and a few of their Ivy friends) began a search for the new executive director.

After some thought, I threw my hat into the ring. I wasn't sure I was qualified, and I knew I had weak areas -- particularly in staff management and supervision, where I'm not naturally talented. I also knew they wanted to hire a black or Latino person; CW's staff and board leadership were all white and Ivy-educated (including me) and the kids we served were African-American and Latino.

They wanted someone who was not just a skilled nonprofit professional, but someone who could recreate the magic they had created.

They eventually settle for me

The board did one round of search and didn't find anyone. They started over on a second round. During these nine months I kept having to show around all the applicants when they came for their interviews. My attitude was "grin and bear it." I'm not easily self-confident, and it was an incredibly awkward period for me.

Then I was offered the job. I was excited! Happy! Honored! And also nervous. For instance, the board agreed with Bridget that the new Program Director would report to Bridget, not to me.

I was aware that I was making gaffes right from the start. I remember in the very first staff meeting -- when Bridget and Colin were still attending staff meetings -- I said, "I have lots of changes I want to make." I had a very hard time supervising people who had been my peers. I assigned someone to re-organize the library, but then I did it myself. That hurt that person's feelings. Meanwhile, it was clear that everyone who was unhappy was going to Bridget and Colin. Bridget was meeting weekly with staff at her house which was not far away.

Night of the faxes

One night I stayed late working on some budget analysis. I faxed out some information to the board members, and then realized I had left something out, so I faxed them a revision. I worked on it some more and sent them another fax showing it was even worse than my first two faxes. Looking back, it might have been the "night of the faxes" when they lost whatever confidence in me they had. And if I had been them, I might even have fired me after that night.

The board assigned two board members to meet weekly with me. They also also got me a coach.

Not everything went badly. We got a lot of new grants. We moved into a new site that involved getting a pro bono architect and overseeing the construction. I had two new staff and was successful in supervising them. Programming stayed mostly excellent.

But the board decided to hire a consultant they knew to monitor me, coach me and be in the office with me. I'll call him Michael. At the cost of thousands of dollars a month, Michael made it his job to meet with each staff member, review all our written materials, grant reports, etc.

Don't go into the basement!

One day he invited me to walk down the hall with him. When we got to the library, it turned out the whole staff and several volunteers had been assembled, and everyone was told to go around the round and tell me what they thought of me. I did my best to listen respectively and not burst into tears as each person aired their grievances in front of the others.

With my one-year anniversary approaching, I went out-of-town to visit a friend. That friend was also a friend of Bridget's and was on the board (although she'd recently moved out of state). We went for a walk on the beach. As we walked, she told me that I was fired, that I was to be given two weeks of severance pay, and that Michael would be the installed as the interim executive director. Bridget and Colin had decided it would be "kinder" for me to hear it from my friend rather than from them.

I felt so betrayed, horrified, angry and devastated. I knew it wasn't going well, but I felt I hadn't been given enough of a chance. It was the worst thing that had happened to me in my life so far. I was crushed. Wrecked.

Red flags

Were there any red flags? Everywhere!

When the search process took nine months, it should have been clear to me that nobody could live up to Bridget and Colin's standards. I shouldn't have taken the job then. When they decided that staff would still report to Bridget, I should have left. When they brought in Michael, I should have left.

In our organization, we had always thought we were different. We were creating new ways of doing things, our own ways that were better than how everyone else did things. So when these things kept happening, I still wanted to believe it would work in our unique organization.

Slow recovery

For weeks I cried. I raged. I would walk down the street and start spitting obscenities.

Every couple of days I would wake up in a cold sweat frantic to try to fix things. I wrote in my journal constantly about how I should have done a better job.

It took me a long time to believe in my heart that I had done the best I could. They needed someone with bigger balls than me who could have stood up to them.

Epilogue

Shortly after I left, Michael left. The largest funder pulled its grant, which was 40% of the budget. The staff fell into factions based on racial makeup and competing visions for where the organization should focus its energy. They lost their office and defaulted on the city loan for the renovation. Bridget and Colin resigned from the board. Eventually it was rebuilt on a much smaller scale. I admit I get some satisfaction from seeing that their website still uses language I wrote way back then.

For me, I eventually got involved with something completely different in a big internet company, and eventually came back to being the executive director in a nonprofit. I'm still not an instinctively good supervisor, but I'm a lot better. Writing this story now I'm surprised at how much emotion I still have inside me about all this. I'm not sure I'll ever get over it.

Thank you, Amanda, for sharing your story with Blue Avocado readers.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Comments (20)

  • Anonymous

    I would love to hear what ever became of Bridget and Colin.

    Apr 21, 2014
  • I especially appreciate the part, "We thought we were unique, inventing new ways of doing things" or something like that. How often we think that about ourselves.

    Apr 22, 2014
  • Amanda, you were set up to fail. The founders didn't build a strong staff or board. They probably enjoyed being indispensable too much. They shouldn't have hired you since it's obvious you weren't among their first choices. They were looking for someone who was just like them except black or Latino and who would have done exactly what they would have done.

    In other words, they built an organization that could be run only by them. And then they didn't allow the board and you to sink or swim. What I wonder is whether these two exuberant self confident founders would have listened to anyone at all about how to have behaved differently both before and after they left.

    Apr 22, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I identify - thanks greatly.

    May 10, 2016
  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Apr 22, 2014
  • Anonymous

    This is "Amanda" posting - thanks for your comments! It has been an incredible experience to tell my story and I thank Jan and Blue Avocado for the opportunity. Despite that last sentence - that I will never get over it - I think I really am. I think the comment that I was 'set up to fail' is true, thought it certainly wasn't intentional - everyone was doing the best they could. I think the organization truly was extraordinary - there wasn't room here to describe it in detail, but I still believe in the 'magic' of what we did. (And despite the anguish I felt at the end, I still keep a t-shirt depicting one of our projects on my office wall.) Thanks to the magic of social media, I stay in touch with a lot of the kids we worked with then, who are now all grown, many with kids of their own. In some cases you can trace their success specifically back to what we did (schools, internships that led to a career) and in others, it's just an article of faith when working with kids that the love and support over the years had a impact. As to Bridget and Colin, she runs an art gallery, he's in private practice as a social worker, living their lives happily (though no longer together) from what I hear from mutual friends. I wonder, sometimes, if they ever think abut what they could have done differently with regard to me. If I knew then what I know now... hey, isn't there a song about that?

    Apr 24, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I got the chills while reading this. I have 11 months under my belt as an executive director and have experienced many of the same things that Amanda went through. The board members interested in staff management instead of big picture governance, the group Festivus-style airing of the grievances, the clandestine board/staff meetings, the mysterious consultant- it's the same script. I have yet to take my long walk on the beach/be put out of my misery. Like Amanda, I own my role in it and I see the value in the lessons that I learned. I call it my million dollar year because I feel that what I've learned couldn't have been taught for a million dollars.

    Apr 24, 2014
  • I want some of your amazingly positive outlook!

    Apr 25, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for your story and especially this comment as I grapple with what is happening and my upcoming departure (my choice). I too believe intentions are good where I am and the more I learn I realize the struggles for organizations after long terms Founders and with new executive directors is not uncommon. I especially relate to the circumstances around your being hired.
    Julie

    May 10, 2016
  • Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing! No idea why board members undermine ED's authority and then act surprised when the ED has issues getting the staff under control.

    Apr 24, 2014
  • Anonymous

    It's a crushing experience to have your dream job turn into a nightmare while seemingly taking your career down the drain with it. I am glad Amanda shared this story after she had time to dust herself off and move on. I appreciated the perspective that time has brought her. Shame on the founders for not building an organization that could function without them and for not seeing Amanda as a competent professional and then letting go.

    Apr 25, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Amanda here again: To the "chills" person - run, don't walk, away. Here's another bizarre story: about 5 or 6 years after this experience, when my husband and I had relocated, he had an opportunity he felt he couldn't refuse. He had been on the board of an organization he loved and worked hard for, when they decided to hire an executive director. The founder had been working both as ED and director of the programs, and the decision had been made to split the position in two and the founder (who had been there over 20 years AND had been my husband's professor and advisor in grad school) stayed on. It was a significant step up for my husband at the time and I wanted to support him, but all I could think was, as Jan put it, "don't go into the basement!" It played out exactly as you might imagine, and after a year, he left. But perhaps because he was more mature than I had been, went to a better job (I had ended up unemployed) and maybe because he's a guy, he seemed generally unscarred by the experience!

    Apr 27, 2014
  • You two should not go out in the rain as you seem very good candidates for being struck by lightning twice.

    Apr 27, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for sharing. It's so sad how difficult it is to survive in the nonprofit world. The miniscule compensation, the ever looming amount of work, the nonexistence of resources and if you top that with an un-supportive board or an overly controlling founder, seems to break a lot of us. How can we create a more sustainable system to not burn out all the bright, enthusiastic people who want to change the world?

    Apr 28, 2014
  • Anonymous

    This article and comments are so similar to my situation. I've been with my organization nearly 15 years, first as a volunteer, then as a part-timer and now as ED. My board has been dysfunctional since day one, but my current president is single handedly ruining the organization and the rest of the board is blind. I understand that executives need to be held accountable, but who holds the board accountable? "They hold themselves accountable," isn't good enough.

    Apr 29, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I am not a founder, but I am our organization's first Executive Director. I would like to leave my organization and try something new, but I am very afraid that in doing so the organization will crumble and fail. I came to the organization without a lot of expertise and am mostly self-taught, so I am well aware of my own responsibility for this possible failure. I am trying to get our board to think bigger and act tougher so that they can weather such a change, but they cling to me tighter every time I bring up succession planning. How do I leave gracefully and get them to find someone else who will be better than me? I don't want to get in the way. This is what I am facing from the other end of the story.

    May 02, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I think you need to give them an est. timeline for your departure to wake them up. Do they have a year, eighteen months. Suggest a timeline for posting the job, forming a hiring committee and overlap. I like you perspective that it is hard to shake people out of the dream world that everything is business as usual and you'll really stay.

    Jul 02, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I have worked in my field for 25 years both with small and large non-profits. When I applied for the job I currently hold I knew at the interview I was following a founder. What I did not know is how difficult it would be. In retrospect I would never follow a founder again. I was asked by the board to work with the founder for an overlap period and I knew we would have difficulties but did not dream the extent. The following year she did everything she could think of to have me terminated. If I had not fought back and had the experience I did under my belt, I would not be here two and a half years later.

    May 27, 2014
  • Anonymous

    One of the most abusive and manipulative scenarios I have heard of in a long time! The coach got the job! WOW!

    Jun 28, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I've come back to this article and read it a couple of times over the summer. So much insight into what we can do to better support our CEOs and leaders in time of tranistion.

    Aug 19, 2014

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