Blue Avocado’s recent article, The Board Just Fired Me, and I’m the Founder! generated a huge reader response. For this issue we interviewed a board member from a different organization.
My wife became friendly with someone she knew from PTA, and one day they invited us and our kids over for dinner. We hit it off. Ben [names have been changed] ran this nonprofit for low-income kids that did after school tutoring, had a big summer camp, and did some programs in the public schools in a low-income, mostly African American neighborhood. Something like 1,500 kids a year. Anyway, we got to be friends and he ended up asking me to join the board.
At first everything seemed fine. The board president Carter was a very impressive African-American man. He ran his own company and he did a good job of running board meetings. He was the only African-American on the board. [Ben and the author are both white.]
I wasn’t sure what the board was adding to anything. I’m in banking so it was inevitable that I became the treasurer. It wasn’t much work because most of the money — maybe 80% — came from the school district or city government. Ben really loved the kids and you could see he really bonded with them.
Then we started to lose some of the school district money. They were cutting back; things got pretty tough. We laid off a few people, but we were still bleeding.
We lost a city government contract. Board members were supposed to call anybody we knew in city government, and I called someone I knew. He said that the organization didn’t have a good reputation at the school district. I was pretty shocked and told Ben about it, and he convinced me that it was just a political thing. Looking back, it was a red flag and maybe I should have done something more about it, although I don’t know what I would have done. And it probably was just a political thing.
Things were going from bad to worse financially. We were running in the red and Ben kept saying — and we believed him — that he was going to get this or that grant but then it wouldn’t come through. It was very frustrating because we just couldn’t get him to focus on finance stuff. It just wasn’t in his repertoire. He kept saying it was about the mission, and he had spent so many years on it and things had always worked out before somehow.
Ben was a very controlling executive director; he never empowered anybody financially because he was unsure himself about financial stuff. The board chair before Carter had been the board chair for a very long time, and he hadn’t paid attention, didn’t hold Ben accountable. So when Carter came in he started to try to hold Ben accountable, and Ben had never had that experience before. It was oil and water.
I didn’t know what we could do. The board president kept saying we had to do something really different and Ben kept saying he was optimistic about money coming in. Board meetings became unpleasant and it was frustrating for everyone.
How long did this go on? Months.
Talk of firing
I can’t remember how it first came up, but people on the board started to talk about how Ben had to go, even though he was the one who started the organization a decade or more before. Carter called an emergency meeting of the executive committee at his office. (Ben always insisted that the board meet at the nonprofit’s office — which was a good idea — so we would be in the neighborhood, so that meeting really stood out.) At the meeting, it was deja vu all over again: Ben said we would be late on payroll again but that he was sure some new grants would be coming in soon.
At that point, Carter said we had to go into executive session and Ben left. After he left, Carter laid out his case for firing Ben. We had a really terrific #2 person, a woman who was a real spark plug, and he said that we should put her in the top job.
Everybody more or less agreed about Ben. I argued and finally got them to agree to give him six more months to turn it around. After all, it was his business, and he knew more about it than we did. Ben had never had an evaluation by the board and we decided we had to have one.
I was very impressed with Carter’s dedication to the organization. I knew him from business and he is very smart, very capable. I was extremely frustrated with Ben, but I was also very dubious about the direction that Carter seemed to be taking the board.
To make a long story short, six months later the organization was still in trouble and we agreed to give it another six months. After months of agony there was another meeting of the executive committee where I was told, “We tried it your way and it didn’t work. Now we have to fire him.” The board president had talked to the #2 and asked her if she would take over. She was very loyal to Ben and told us that she would take over only as an acting director.
I told the group I wanted to resign so that I wouldn’t be on the board when they voted to fire Ben. I could see it was inevitable at this point. The next week I called Ben and told him that I was resigning from the board. The week after that the board had a special meeting and they unanimously fired him.
What happened? I don’t know the details, but the #2 person did step in, although she didn’t want the job permanently and really wasn’t up to it. Six or seven months later they closed the organization. They were broke. She moved to Texas.
You gotta wonder: who was ultimately right? We were in very big financial trouble and Ben had no idea how to deal with it. At the same time I don’t think Carter gave Ben enough credit for the successes the organization had had, and that these were largely due to Ben. The organization was Ben.
Am I still friends with Ben? No. He never talked to me again. It broke up the friendship between my wife and his wife. My wife heard that he was looking for a job with retirement benefits and without a board. She heard that he eventually got a job at a hospital but that might not be right.
What would I have done differently looking back? I wouldn’t have joined the board in the first place.
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