We usually don’t publish First Person Nonprofit articles anonymously. But in this case we know the individual and corroborated the key points of her story, and we understand why she has asked that her name not be published.
Four weeks and five days ago from this moment — at 4 pm on a May afternoon — I was fired. That morning the board chair told me our afternoon meeting would not be a finance committee meeting after all, but, rather, “about your future with the organization.” The meeting lasted, at the most, 6 minutes.
“We would like you to resign,” the board chair said.
“I have already submitted my resignation,” I replied. Three weeks ago I had told the board I would be leaving in November. We were about to embark on a strategic planning process, and our big conference — the one I created 11 years ago — would be in the fall. That seemed like a fitting exit point.
“It’s not acceptable to wait until November,” he said. “We are terminating you effective immediately. Please turn in your keys and key card right now.”
I was furious, white hot mad. I narrowed my eyes and “did a Harold” (my father’s name was Harold).
He went on to tell me that I was not to go to the office to pick up my personal items unless a member of the board was present, and he would let me know who on the board to contact for that purpose.
And that was it.
I’m still furious. I’m mad at all the board members. I’m pissed at the new board members that I recruited because they didn’t stop it. I’m mad at the old guard for being so sanctimonious. They don’t have a clue. I’m angry because I should have been treated better and there’s nothing I can do about it. And that’s NOT FAIR.
Since the morning call had been pretty clear about the purpose of the meeting, I had had a few hours to prepare. I told each staff member that I might be fired that afternoon. We had a fantastic team of five at the organization, and I believed it was important for them to know what might be coming down the road.
After my meeting with the board chair, I went back to the office to tell the staff what had happened. The door was locked, although everyone’s cars were still in the lot. There was no answer to my knock. I was struck with a huge, hurt fear that they were sitting in there having been told not to let me in. I later learned that, at the same time I was meeting with the two officers who fired me, another group of board members had gone to the office and taken everyone across the street to a coffee shop to tell them what was happening.
So I went home. I cried. I slept.
The next day a friend forwarded an email to me that had been sent to everyone on our distribution list — about 2,500 people. It started like this: “Effective immediately, ____ is no longer the Executive Director of ____. Our organization is in trouble and the most significant issues relate to our finances.”
Should have seen the signs
I should have seen the signs. But I didn’t. Looking back now, I can pinpoint when the shift in board personality began: about 6 years ago. There was an evolution of the board from a group of enthusiastic, flexible individuals to a collection of people who engage in inwardly-focused groupthink. They were unwilling to engage in any sort of healthy debate. They consistently ignored the financial warning signs I pointed out, and they flat-out saw only limited responsibility for themselves to be fundraisers.
Nearly three years ago I missed another piece of evidence. A long time board member remarked that boards should have executive sessions at every meeting — without the CEO. And so they did.
Most important, they did not seem to grasp the fact that our mission required a mix of charitable and earned income. They believed that if we could just figure out the right business model we could survive on earned income alone.
The result? When they finally paid attention to the financial situation of the organization, they panicked.
I had been talking about leaving off and on for several years. The board had complained that I hadn’t given them a date. So I gave them a date.
When I gave my resignation I did it by letter to each of the board members. I had given them a resignation date of November 30. And I got no response to the letter, no response whatsoever. I sent an email to my board chair and said I haven’t heard from you, I’d like to talk, and he never responded. I really didn’t get it.
In fact, I never talked to the board after my resignation letter. A week after I sent them the letter, I sent an email asking for a special board meeting to discuss the current financial crunch. We on the staff had decided we would all take a 20% pay cut for a limited period of time, maybe three or four months. In our organization if you cut a staff member you cut income, so we couldn’t solve the financial problem just by laying people off.
At the special board meeting no one mentioned my resignation. The next week they fired me. It was a unanimous vote.
Advice to other founders
This is every founder’s nightmare. My advice: first, don’t ever shortchange the time you spend with your board members. Build really good relationships with them.
And recruit for personality. My board would be perfect for a large foundation but it’s the wrong board for a small entrepreneurial nonprofit. I admit that I had a big role in recruiting. Why did I recruit them? Because I didn’t know what I was doing. They have no spine.
They chose to be unengaged and I let them do it. The finance committee did meet every month and we went over the finances in painful detail. This group of people didn’t want to spend the time to be good board members. They were just interested in the once-a-month meeting.
I’ve changed my mind about being a voting member of the board. They couldn’t have met without me if I had been a voting member. The dynamic was that they had all the power and I had none.
I put in an unemployment claim and they didn’t fight it, so at least I’m collecting unemployment. I’m trying to build a consulting business at the same time I look for a real job. The staff threw me a party and the board was not invited. It was a very nice party. But there is still one sore point. One of the staff has been there five years and we were really close. But we haven’t talked about this, and I don’t know how to close things out with her.
Thank you for sharing this story.
See also in Blue Avocado:
Harriet Rossetto says
Is there an organization of Founders who have been exiled like a Founders Anonymous? I would like to connect with others who have processed their loss or are struggling as I am after losing the organization I founded 35 years ago.
Cary Grant Anderson says
I think that it’s Gresham’s Law that states, “bad money drives out good.” And the same applies to organizations, non-profit or profit. What hasn’t been mentioned here is the propensity of bad people who are attracted to good, stable, and promising organization not for any good charitable or business purpose but for their own power. Which they secure and exercise as soon as possible, driving the founder and good people out of the organization. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. That’s why I will have a “recommendation board” for my non-profits and not a “control board”. How is a board supposed to be able to “run” an organization when they really don’t? And can’t?
Silvia Mathis Manning says
The Universe definitely has a sense of humor. Thank God! For me, landing on this article this evening as I did was nothing short of miraculous. I am currently in the throes of final revisions on a screenplay that I must turn in very soon. A great portion of the story centers around a female CEO, COO – right now I am not sure which. Her Father is the Chairman of the Board. She’s made a hiring choice that he is unhappy with and the person that she’s hired is scheming to oust her Father. Our heroine is unaware of this fact.
The point is. This heartbreaking story that Anonymous shared was a revelation. Thank you for your vulnerability. Thank you for your honesty and thank you for your courage in sharing.
Since this happened back in 2011 I would love to know what you’re up to now. I trust you’re enjoying a wonderful new season in your life. #Moltagiola2018 (Much Joy 2 You This Year!)
Board members need training, vision and organization. My experience is that they think they do more than they actually perform. Reasons for board service and philanthropy are sometimes ulterior. Yes, there is more to the story than the author reports. Sound research and strategic planning should be the determining factors for a financial strategy combining earned income and charitable giving. Founders need to protect themselves in the bylaws while at the same time being self-reflective at the evolving ways they can best serve the organization as an entity apart from themselves.
I have liked this story because it has touched my heart of functionality in my organisation as the founder. One thing i can say is that you as the founder you can't be liked by all the Board members and even when you recruit people on Board instead of appreciating the positions the have and also work hard to wards the vision of the organisation,the tend to gather their own ideas and try to divert the organisation into their personal benefits and in that situation they try all means to fire out the founder,because as the founder you are the vision bearere and once you are removed from the board your vision can not be continued a head.so my advice is that please founders be very wise while setting up governing rules and also while recruiting,recruit people whom you know well that can reach you vision for the organisation and have a percentage of "Dictatorship in democracy".Thanks MPATSWE FRANCIS, NKUMBA UNIVERSITY
founders syndrome is a fallacy
It is the “I” – “I” – “I” that this ED consistently uses to tell her story that makes me suspect founderitis. It is not about the ED – but rather an ED’s ability to nuture and steward the mission of the organization. Obviously – the board did not feel this ED was doing so… and… in my experience with founders – at some point, and usually around 10-11 years, it is time to move on. It is sad when the founder does not see it themselves.
You must have never founded anything in your life. I, I, I is work, work, work. People will never get what its like to have a dream stolen until its your own. Speak from experience.
Wow! I was not the founder, but an Area Director of a nonprofit. Reading this story was almost like reading what happened to me!
Thanks for sharing this story as I can now see that these things happen to other good people who try their best to help a nonprofit by working long hours for inadequate pay because they love the work. This could be our failing—loving the work over being more aware of personality challenges and just good business sense.
I just wonder how many other good people have been fired and had their reputation and feelings hurt due to inadequate board management. When nonprofits run out of good people to run great nonprofits, there will be fewer nonprofits helping more people. Where is this leading?
Oh my gosh, this just happened to me. Wow, so glad I stumbled upon this article and your response.
I second the comment that if you want to own the organization start a for-profit. These comments are all very interesting and represent the wide range of views in relation to non-profit governance. I believe all too often that Non-Profit EDs (esp. founders) forget the basic fundamentals of the non-profit structure— the organization is created for the greater good and it does not belong to the staff or the board. If you’d like it to remain in your grasp forever you simply need to change how it is registered. The NP structure is designed to set up multiple levels of accountability (to mission and the public). It is true that boards often don’t properly address their responsibilities but many EDs don’t recruit or train boards properly. And that is often done in a way to undermine the potential of their authority. And while many people are commenting that the board was disrespectful we don’t know if they suspected fiscal malfeasance or any other behavior that could warrant that. Depending on the circumstances it can be risky to allow terminated staff back in the building. I think this article speaks to the problem of how volunteer boards are selected and trained. When founders create boards of their friends you don’t create systems of checks and balance and this demonstrates the need for accountability and oversight from funders and government. I also noticed that some comments mention that EDs often have the connections but they are also the ones who let their egos destroy many relationships and potential partners. It is also true that statistically speaking many organizations close when the founder leaves but this speaks more to poor organizational culture than it does any sort of expertise or skills only capable of a founder. It means that there likely wasn’t a strategic exit plan as a result of egotistical or bad leadership throughout the organization.
This story touched me, as did some of the responses This exact thing happened to me as a founder/executive director. after I left the organization floundered and eventually closed. When I recruited my board, I was young and ignorant and let the others had “more experience on other boards” run the show. Eventually, they too asked our small arts organization support itself strictly from earned income because they were tired of fund raising. So instead of leaving the board, they let me go. It was years later a number of the board members contacted me and apologized for their lack of knowledge about THEIR responsibility as a board member. FOr me new organization, I’m sticking to the THREE G’s – Get Money, Give Money, or Get off the Board – plus a lot of Board Development and Training.
Exactly – looks like I’m about to experience the same thing. I’ve only had contract teaching artists help with our programs, and most or income is earned. I’ve never had a salary and am only nominally compensated, I mean super PT level of compensation. I’ve put up a lot of my own money to subsidize being able to work full-time. I want to find someone with more business experience to take the organization from start-up mode to mid-level organization with a small, paid staff. The money isn’t there yet. I feel I’m being judged on my performance by the board as if they were paying me a full-time salary, when I’m the one paying for it. It is so frustrating.
My sympathies to the author. Even the gentlest, least “personal” layoff hurts – how much more to be exiled from your creation.
The world needs both nonprofit innovators and institution-builders and they are usually very different people. Founders ignore the rules and the evidence that there is no more room for another nonprofit, fighting for space from the outside. Builders learn the rules and play the game effectively to expand the organization’s space within the established order.
The board may or may not have made the right decision or handled it well, but clearly both parties realized that it was time for a transition to post-founder leadership.
A more compliant, founder-worshipping board would have watched the financial problem play out from the sidelines. Her board members took the risk of leadership and will now be personally responsible for the financial recovery as well as the considerable work of hiring a new ED.
I hope the author can get over the natural anger and take pride in her creation – including the board which she largely recruited.
As with other posters, I agree that this account seems very one-sided. A board that is “unengaged” does not go to the trouble of firing an ED — it is a lot of work, and means making a very tough decision. Currently, I serve on a board where most, if not all, of us are aware that the ED does the bare minimum required of her, does not follow policies, is often dishonest, withholds important information, doesn’t deal with staff conflict, doesn’t deal with any difficult problems, is not on top of finances, etc. We have tried offering and requiring training, and it just hasn’t helped at all. We are still struggling, and the summer break (no more board meetings until September) won’t help the situation. We have been beyond clear about the expectations, but our ED won’t do anything that is difficult for her or results in more work. What’s a group of volunteers that has already put way too much time into trying to straighten out a mess to do??
1) ED hand picking directors=poor practice
2) ED serving as voting board director=horrible practice
Advocating for both practices is indicitive of someone most definitely suffering from Founder’s Syndrome.
I can’t help to think that we’re not hearing the full story here. My guess is that the majority of the board would come back with comments like: “If only we would have known about the financial condition of the organization….” “Why didn’t the ED tell us about the financial condition?” “Why wasn’t the ED more forthcoming and open with us?”
Believe me, I know boards can be asleep at the switch, but I also know that boards don’t often operate on whim and they are typically remiss to cause even minor organizational discontent. So, sure would be interesting to see an anonymous counter to this article.
All said, what a rediculous way to handle the termination–sounds like some overly deligent legal advice going on–unless, of course, there were concerns extending beyond employment performance…
I was asked to resign as ED for an organization I co-founded 15 years ago, after running it for only two. My idea of how to grow the organization differed from the board that I had helped recruit (but they had also done some self-recrutiting). It hurt, but I did it quickly and hopefully gracefully, and I’m proud that the organization has continued on to today with substantially the same mission (but at a static level in terms of budget and member size). Still, I have only a very distant relationship with it anymore. I continued to work and server on non-profit boards, until I transferred those skills into higher education administration. Over the past 4 years, I both worked and volunteered as a consultant and then as a board member for an organization that had an ED that was essentially a founder. She had a board that was totally disengaged and what I might assess as a weak staff and she was doing everything. We worked hard to build a new board, and worked closely with her frequently changing requests for dates and terms of her departure, and to determine the best qualities and search for an interm ED, as well as a rough strategic plan. It was decided to have a cross over period, so that the exiting ED could help train the incoming ED, and that I think was very valuable. As of the 31st of May, the exiting ED had moved completely away from the organization, and a new interm ED is in place. The interm status makes me a little nervous, I have to say, and I had to step down from the board for personal reasons…but I’m proud that we made it to that milestone in what I think is a humane way. I just spoke with the exiting ED, and she’s already deeply engaged with another non-profit that is related to the original mission and might even be closer to her personal passion. This is not to say there weren’t many moments of emotional rawness during the entire process…and relationships and loyalties heavily tested, sometimes broken, and sometimes repaired. Finally, this candid original story is great because it’s such a classic narrative: it could have happened anywhere in America, in our particular strange corporate structure called a 501 (c) 3. So I’m glad that it was posted, and that the ED had courage to share…and that everyone has shared their thoughts and experiences so openly here (including someone from the other side). I hope the original author can learn to take the whole non-profit game a little less personally…because, indeed, it’s supposed to be about the missions and clients we serve as both boards and EDs, not about us. Non-profits ARE businesses, though, and if they aren’t working, change will happen, like it or not.
Although I’ve heard Founder’s syndrome defined as an unwillingness of the founder to relinquish “control” over an organization, what I have observed is that it is often used, unfairly I think, to describe founding EDs with strong opinions (which they usually have, because those are the type of people who start organizations) when they disagree with others in the organization. I think it is often used as an excuse for boards to avoid accepting their own responsibilities (fundraising, board self-evaluation, etc.), and I wish the term would be abandoned. It doesn’t serve much useful purpose.
BTW, I have found this story and the comments to be very thought provoking and interesting. Good job, Blue Cado.
I think founder’s syndrome describes an organizational issue, and it shouldn’t be used to describe the founder specifically. That to me would be scapegoating the founder. The founder can only hold an organization back when the rest of the org is somehow complicit.
I went through something similar, and though I wouldn’t have done exactly what this ED did, it sounds as though her board had similar problems to those I faced.
In a nutshell, I started at an organization which had existed for years as a small, all-volunteer group; it had “landed” a monied board member who pledged funding to hire core staff and start professionalizing. I was the second hire after the ED, and worked first as development director and later as Associate ED (I have extensive prior experience as an ED).
For six years, our board pretty much rubber-stamped staff recommendations, and we grew–we added programs and staff, I raised a ton of money (mostly project grants), and our public profile was building rapidly. We explicitly stated as our philosophy that we were risk-tolerant and entrepreneurial–that we wanted to take a big bite out of our mission instead of nibbling around the edges.
The wheels came off the bus when the economy crashed. Funds we had already secured were frozen; private donations slowed to a trickle. And suddenly, the board was very, very hands-on.
The ED had made a mistake–with full knowledge of the board–which made this challenge much worse. And because the board was mostly made up of sole-proprietor business leaders, their immediate impulse was to can the CEO. Which they did, in about the most awkward, staff-demoralizing and donor-panicking manner they possibly could have. The sheer lack of even basic management skills was pretty shocking.
They asked me to stay on as interim director and keep the lights on while they did a search…but specifically told me that I was not welcome to apply. I learned later that this was because a donor and former member of the board was angry with me, believing that I had had something to do with the ED’s mistake. I hadn’t; I didn’t even learn of it until months after it took place.
Four months later, having not found any applicant with the qualifications they sought, the board decided to hire the board chair–who had none of these qualifications, and hadn’t sought the job–as its new ED. He had never run a nonprofit before. I was laid off, in a similarly rude and incompetent manner to what had happened to the ED. In fact, I had to lead the board by the hand to develop a transition strategy to avoid panicking the organization’s support base all over again.
Since then, the organization has lost all of its most important technical and program management staff, including those who provide the qualifications that enabled them to tap the millions in grant funds I used to raise for them. And what I hear in the local community about the new ED is, “Well, he’s a nice guy, but he has no idea of what he’s doing.” They’re still alive, but they’re really not doing much of anything of consequences…and they’ve now created a seamless little bubble of self-congratulation around themselves, where they story they tell about themselves is in sharp contrast to how far they have fallen into irrelevance.
My point here is that there is an inherent problem with the way the nonprofit sector is structured in this country. When things are going well, boards tend to defer to staff, but when they aren’t, board members go with what they know–and because the most desirable board members are typically in for-profit business and often don’t know anything about the nonprofit sector and its differences, their impulses are completely wrong for nonprofit problem-solving. When things get tough and the natural human impulse to start pointing fingers enters the picture, the fact that it is those who are LEAST knowledgeable about the work of the organization–as opposed to the staff, who actually know what is going on and how things work–who are in the position of making life and death decisions that can kill or cripple good work. This is a basic structural flaw in the nature of the nonprofit sector, and one which has led me to decide, after 25 years, that I’m really not that interested in working for nonprofits any longer.
This wasn’t a relationship or communication issue–we had great communication with the board and a strong sense of board support until their sudden about-face.
If there is one thing I would have done differently, it would have been to recruit seasoned nonprofit board members. We had attorneys, a retired judge, business leaders, scientists, a former elected official…a great, diverse mix of community leaders. But only one of them had done much board work before, and that killed us. That one person, btw, tried to organize to get me the ED job, and got about 2/3 of the board to agree…but none on the recruitment committee, so that was all she wrote.
I hear these stories over and over in the nonprofit community. Boards are more often than not more of a problem than a help. Reform of this system would be a very good idea.
You expressed my sentiments exactly. After 30 years in the non-profit realm I was blind-sided. The deceit of the BOD was so awful I had to resign to save my sanity. I transitioned out over a 6 month period to make sure that the organization I started 16 years earlier survived the transition financially and that its reputation remained strong.
I too think there are basic flaws in the 501(c)(3) system that results in NPs “eating their young.” I have resisted non-profit work since then. Alas! it remains difficult to affect social change without the NP umbrella and I am reluctantly initiating a new non-profit. I pray that the last ten years out of the NP sector has given me a better perspective and a whole lot more wisdom.
This firing episode is all over this community – one of those towns with a sizeable population but a modest number of non-profits and truly talented board leaders. We’re also all aware of the existence of her anonymous memoir here and the comment thread. As a person not involved in the organization or the board but watching for years from the perspective of the philanthropic class I’ve heard about how weak the organization was and how the ED was perceived: gruff, unpolished, abrupt and lacking in a professional smoothness. Not a soul I’ve spoken to about her or the organization has told me she was a superb human proxy for the organization and its mission. Repeatedly I hear, “The organization can be so much more. The ED is holding it back. They can forget about donors engaging or investing with her running the place.” People have been wondering for years why she was not fired and a more suitable ED hired years ago. She does not inspire or bring confidence to the philanthropic class and local nonprofits often go to the city to the north for the same trainings this organization offered. Her agency is not a player to them in any way. The organization is near a major city and could have been a viable local alternative player to our larger more dominant city and it’s offerings to the north. It never became that.
Word on the street was the board members over the years were largely a group of people who were unwilling to challenge the ED founder’s overbearing gruff personality. She claims they were “enthusiastic, flexible individuals.” I suspect she could label them this way because they did not understand their need to govern by holding the ED to a demanding work plan with quantifiable measurable outcomes that constituted success. I also imagine that when anyone had the confidence to ask tough questions this ED reminded board members in ways large and small over and over that she was the founder! When dealing with a gruff difficult ED and without strong backing from board peers you just say, “Fuggedaboutit!” and term off as soon as you can. If this behavior profile was the case, by being this way it functions as an attempt to insulate oneself from accountability and performance. Without an understanding of how a board holds an ED accountable for performance the board would not have had the necessary tool to evaluate and confidently retain or dismiss some while ago. With board member changes and financial challenges the ED needed to confront and fix some years ago, (acknowledged in her article above), and in the face of the sudden revelation of the depth of the financial crisis, the existing group got some chutzpah and did the thing that needed to be done years ago. With this terrible economy, it may be too late. Apparently a group of community stakeholders will be assembling to discuss the viability of the organization going forward in the community. Many of us will be watching closely for the outcome.
Thank you for what seems like another perspective on this actual situation. I wondered what the author meant by she “narrowed her eyes and did a Harold” – it didn’t sound good and I can only imagine what that means.
Like many others I have found this to be a very engaging discussion with many lessons to learn from.
It has been my experience that non-profits often have two types of leadership; founder-led, as executive director/president/CEO and board led. When a board is comprised of friends, supporters and believers in the founder and merely serves as a rubber-stamp to the initiatives of the founder, the organization is in a position to run into trouble and there are many very public high-profile examples of the consequences of this type of board.
Only when a board carries out its fiduciary and other specified duties according to the best interest of the organization, will the organization succeed. Sometimes these duties require the difficult decision to remove the founder in order to preserve the integrity of the organization, as recently happened in our community. When the welfare of the organization and its ongoing purpose is more important than an individual’s misguided choices, even if that individual is the founder, it is essential that the board members be committed to the organization and the fulfilllment of its board responsibilities.
I work in a church. My specialty is taking churches that had considered closing into a living status. (At that point, they really need another).
My problem board has a member that has taken to micromanaging. It is frustrating for me personally, and has led to many people deciding to avoid working with the “leaders”. I’m trying to lift the sights (as a pastor, I get the pulpit) but the micromanager is hamstringing us. I’ve almost turned in my resignation several times, but feel it would be better for the church to be openly fired if it comes to that (as that would be a congregation’s decision).
My other church is expanding its mission, and the community college I also work at is booming.
I have been the founding board president of one organization and the founding ED of another, so this article and the commentary is especially poignant to me. I believe there are start-up people and management people and I’m clearly in the start-up division (although there may be some hybrids who can do both well). One of the things I grapple with, as a starter person, is trying to figure out the best time to move on- the signs and/or patterns if they exist. It would be interesting to me if others have experience or advice. I’d like to see my way to the door before I need to be escorted out as the initial writer experienced.
I cannot count the number of people who have told me that they “have their own non-profit.” I once worked for an organization whose founder/executive director treated the organization as her personal bank account, with all its assets (staff, cash, etc.) dedicated to her personal fame and fortune. I was once the treasurer of an organization that fired our well-known executive director for financial mismanagement, and he still gets resume mileage and entre from his short tenure with our group twenty years ago. I myself decided not to return to my executive director job after maternity leave because the board met in secret during my leave, and presented me with a list of grievances (including my refusal to give them keys to the office and the client files) that I was supposed to address before returning from the leave to which I was legally entitled. We need a clear standard of nonprofit management which is NOT modeled on the private sector. It should reflect values (paying fair wages, 40 hour weeks, clear board responsibility and accountability, etc.) and there should be some legal (government!) oversight.
Oh, and I would bet that there are far more women than men who have experienced unfair treatment by the boards of their agencies. Annual evaluations and fairly negotiated employment contracts need to become a standard in our sector.
This article is tough to read. It seems like perhaps the board AND the E.D. have a propensity to leave “emotional wakes” in their conversations.
The board did not think through how to carry this out respectfully while providing dignity. The E.D, staff & community deserved a more graceful exit. Therefore they left a BIG wake.
The E.D. seemed to not think through how uncomfortable it would be for her staff to be in the middle. She talked with them BEFORE the meeting and went to talk with them AFTER the meeting (but was denied access). I understand her need to process, but it seems to me like she was only thinking of her needs, and not her staff. If she was thinking of her staff she would have waited for them to contact her first and she would have collected her belongings off hours. This type of behavior seems to me to be “wake creating” behavior.
I agree with an earlier comment – this is like watching an accident that you can’t turn away from. I would like to hear the board’s side of the story – so we E.D.’s can LEARN from this experience.
I have a problem with the comment that the ED has a propensity for drama. A founder should be expected to have a crazy emotional investment. If a board roughs the founder up, the founder should not be expected to handle the whole thing beautifully. We’re all human. I had a situation where I needed to fire a founder. I recognized the huge potential for drama and did some careful planning to keep things as smooth as possible. It meant being sensitive to the founder’s perspective. I think that’s both smart for the organization and kind to the founder.
This is a very sad story. Regardless of what may have happended, everyone deserves dignity. I am sure that nonprofit would not have ever treated a client like that, but…maybe they would. Sad indeed!
This has been a voyeuristic experience, the kind where you know you should look away, but somehow you cannot.
Clearly there are lessons to be learned for all sides — founder, board, staff and we readers — but they are hard to extract from the cascading raw hurt in this piece.
While I feel a certain human sympathy for this founder, many of her claims are questionable: The board has “no spine” — really? It would be a good board for a “large foundation” — what on earth does that mean? Its members are only interested in attending meetings? Harder still to imagine, in this busy world.
By writing before time’s balm can do its work, the author keeps us from finding the lessons of her experience and even from empathizing with her. Unfortunately, the responses to her premature piece may add to her pain.
Since we are this far into an uncomfortable, shared experience, perhaps it would help all of us if she wrote about this experience again in a year, to see if her perspective has changed.
I just read the First Person story, feeling anger and sadness for that executive director. I am going through this scenario with a board now. The board abruptly fired two of four founder-staff of an organization without giving an explanation to the other founders and staff, and everyone has been grieving for the past year. The board then abruptly hired someone to replace the fired staff and her role has been unclear from the beginning, and has not cleared up despite her efforts to work with the board to create more clarity in her position.
I was brought in by the board to coach this person because her style is at odds with the culture of the organization and she has really ticked off a number of staff and other stakeholders. My role has grown from trying to assist this person cope in this environment to coaching the board on governance.
It seems the board is slowly coming around to the notion that they acted hastily a year ago when it fired the founders, hired a new staff person to take their place, become overly engaged in the organization’s management, and failed to establish clear expectations. More important, board members are now acknowledging they made serious mistakes. I have encouraged them to come clean, and to learn from their mistakes, but to also focus on creating a better environment.
I agree with those who suggest that it’s difficult to assess this situation without hearing the board’s side of things. This is definitely a rant (witness language that you might use when unloading to a friend or spouse – not in something that’s going to be published). I also take umbrage with the fact that this is anonymous. There really must be more to the situation if this founder is not willing to say what she needs to say publicly. Finally, I’m really offended by the comment about trying to do some consulting until a real job can be found. This kind of attitude is what gives consultants a bad name. I am a consultant who also lost a job I loved and decided to take the many skills I developed in that job and share them as a consultant. I have been successful and if the number of referrals I receive is an indication, I provide good value for my many repeat non-profit clients. Consulting is not something you do until something better comes along. Perhaps it’s that kind of judgmental attitude that lost her the job in the first place.
Wow! So many responses, as others have said, clearly hit a nerve with Blue Avocado readers. I scanned the comments and saw many that echo the reaction I had – whose job is it to recruit board members? What about board training? How do the ED and Board work together to solve organizational problems? Why wasn't there a more "humane" exit strategy? Is there an inherent problem with the construct of nonprofit board governance – asking volunteers to do key executive work? The one comment I'd like to add, on top of these questions and related to Founder's Syndrome is that many nonprofit Founder's (or long tenured ED's) fail to realize this is not THEIR organization. By virtue of being a nonprofit, the organization BELONGS to the community and it is the board's responsibility to represent the community's interest in that organization and safeguard that the organization is around to meet the community's needs. If an ED/Founder wants to OWN the organization they should start a for-profit. We need more education about this in the nonprofit sector, especially to those starting up nonprofits, and more education to ED's and boards on how to make these critical transitions in leadership, which are necessary and inevitable, gracefully. –Judy Sharken Simon, MAP for Nonprofits
Aloha Judy Sharken Simon,
*Your comment on the necessity of education to ED’s/Boards, and I would add staff, is on point.
*Wild Apricot offers very helpful services & training for small organizational needs..and gives a platform for automation of repetitive duties to fill in for absent staff &/or give overworked staff room to breathe.
*http://managementhelp.org offers fairly complete free introductory information for those new to the nonprofit world
*http://https://www.cfsarasota.org/OnlineClasses/tabid/544/Default.aspx is a good source for affordable Certificate in NP Management (can be done by course or as a package)
*Tho there are many online training programs/certification programs now available, these 2 come to mind immediately. Totally agree that everybody at the core workings of a nonprofit organization needs to have the curiosity, commitment, time to learn how to serve the community better, always.
*All the best!
As a CEO of a government NP, I suggest you read this book which relates to Board personalities in all NPOs:
Haugk, Kenneth C.
Antagonists in the church: how to identify and deal with
Minneapolis : Augsburg Pub. House,1988.
As a staff person just fired by a founder because I pushed for her to have more accountability– more oversight by the board — I find this topic very interesting. As many people have already said here, SOME founders see their organizations as their own sandbox to play in as they want. They founded it, so it is theirs. Board members are their friends, and there are few lines drawn between the professional and the personal. They may have brought a beautiful organization into the world, but this same power to create is balanced with the power to destroy if it grows beyond their control. Sometimes… not always… but sadly too often.
My experience is definitely limited, but in my short experience I’ve noticed many Founders tend to continue to feel they are still running everything as they surely did when the organization was in its fledgling stages, even when other competent staff or board members are brought on board. Often there’s a lack of communication; maybe the board or staff are intimidated by the Founder’s expertise and sometimes iron hand? This account does sound a bit one-sided, and and I tend to get wary when a Founder talks about board recruitment strategy, as many Founders seem to prefer to select cheerleaders or big names instead of individuals willing to lead and work (and raise funds).
I agree the firing was poorly handled, and the mass email was a horrible slap in the face. Perhaps in the future, if someone as a board member is in a similar situation, they could consult with whoever their local nonprofit experts for strategies to make the transition less painful for all? I hope Jan is successful in getting a glimpse or two into the board’s side.
Um — being a consultant IS a real job . . .
So, what’s the board side of the story?
I hope everyone who reads this sees that this is one person’s perspective of a difficult situation. This may not be a view of all the facts. As readers, we don’t know what the board really did, what they were struggling with, or their work in the relationship or trying to sustain an organization. Nonprofits are allowed by the IRS to exist with tax exempt status to serve a community. The board exists to represent the community and they hire an executive director. A founding ED has had a role in visioning the need and building the organization. It does not entitle the ED to be manipulating the board composition to protect his/her job or any other of the problems I see in this story. It would be valuable if Blue Avacado would take the column and highlight the problems from a good practice standpoint. That message that was sent sounds like there was a crisis, and it sounds like there was a crisis. To have sent a message that everything was fine might not have been true. Sometimes situations get to a point where a clean break is required and people need to own their part of the story and move on for the sake of the organization and the community. Isn’t that what this is all about?
I agree. I would really have liked to hear an analysis of the problems from a good practice standpoint. Maybe in the next monthly newsletter?
The good practices are remarkably well articulated in the responses to this piece. What’s great about the many responses is that they take a true story, with all of its one-sinded details, and flesh out what could and should have happened. There are plenty of good NPO governance publications out there to refer to, but without an opportunity to apply the principles it is easy to learn some issues the hard way.
I agree with all the posters about how poorly it was handled. Awkward and unpleasant situations tend to bring out the worst in people esp. volunteers with no HR experience. I will say though with my 15 years as an ED, I have felt the financial stability of the organization is my lookout. It is MY job to lose. Directors go home to their families, jobs. I live here. I would hope that I would have done something versus living with it as her comment: “They consistently ignored the financial warning signs I pointed out, and they flat-out saw only limited responsibility for themselves to be fundraisers.” And if she could not, then quit (but with another job lined up!).
Having worked for several founder organizations, I know there can be lots of problem with control (that we can call founder’s syndrome.) That being said, and acknowledging that many founders may lack capacities to grow organizations to the next level, I would like to see this founder–and the others–given credit for FOUNDING and probably pouring her life blood into the organization. She probably cares passionately about the cause and it is not just a job to her, but a way of life. The organization is her baby, and even if it is time for the baby to grow up and develop wings without her, she should be respected as the founder. The resignation letter should have been acknowledged, and if the board had to move up the date, they should have had a conversation with her. Founders can be difficult to work with, but without them none of us would be working in the nonprofit sector because the organizations wouldn’t exist.
I think this board was brave and probably correct in its actions.
None of us know what happened. However, they may have felt that this was the best way to handle it, to avoid nasty, back-biting and other horrible outcomes.
Having worked with 3 founder organizations, and having spoken with others who have been involved with founder orgs, I can say that most founders don’t know when to leave. They are not reflective about their skills and capabilities and they do not accept guidance from the board or professional level staff.
We don’t know if that’s the case here, but I’d bet money on it.
Over 90% of founder charities fail to transition to professionally run organizations. This board may well have given this organization a fighting chance to survive and continue to fulfill its mission.
Time will tell.
Over years of experience and a couple of similar experiences, I learned that the two individuals involved in my “resignation” were power hungry women who wanted my job, and in fact took it for the short run. When that wasn’t working for them/agency they soon became disinfranchised, as well.
LET THIS BE A HARD LESSON TO ALL OF US WORKAHOLICS & MYRTERS FOR THE “CAUSE”. Every single one of us is DISPENSIBLE. We can all be replaced in a heart beat. The new Board member on a climb to stardom, or a vendetta for some unknown reason.
Study, learn, and do your job to the best of your ability. Embrace lovingly everyone you work with, board and staff, and the shining star of light will be with you. If not………don’t let it get you down.
GET A LIFE NOW. Don’t wait until you are asked to leave. Don’t make your agency you LIFE. Have friends, do exciting things, personally, and don’t live your life for or through your agency. In the end nowbody will remember us anyway. Just know in your heart you have made the difference in probably thousands of lives, and that is what is important anyway.
Great points! I learned this the hard way…. although I wasn’t fired and left voluntarily, I left because I felt the board did not appreciate all my hard work and sacrifice. I’ve learned that it’s often “what did you do for me today” when dealing with boards — they forget that you worked around the clock to finish the grant that brought in $100K six months ago or that you spent months designing new programs or services that now bring in new revenue. Boards are volunteers who — no matter how committed to the agency — have other lives and do not eat, drink and sleep the organziation. They do not “see” the workaday world at your agency. They see the serene duck on the surface of the water, not its orange feet paddling as fast as they can. Nor is it their role to see or be the duck’s feet. Yoga helps….
The headline of this article suggests the Founder is entitled to special treatment. That should not be the case. Founders often stay too long and expect to be appreciated for having started the group.
Yes, this situation seems to have been handled badly, and blame can probably be assigned to both sides. But there is nothing wrong with firing an Executive Director. Having been the Founder of the group should be irrelevant.
I have had a similar experience where the balance of the Board became controlled by a dominating individual (that I unfortunately had recruited), and I was forced out. The warning signs were there, but being my first non-profit job, I was oblivious. In retrospect, I see my part in the situation and try to do things very differently in my current position.
This does not however, change their responsibility for their part – both the “dominant” individual and the members who did not have the courage to oppose him.
Irregardless of the details of this situation – the way the dismissal was handled was awful. The ensuing email even worse. It certainly has negatively effected my view of the organization.
Clearly this story hits a nerve with many of us working in the non-profit community… either as an ED or as a Board member. I am a past-Board Chair who has been involved in hiring, evaluating, and managing a “founding ED”. I have also served on other non-profit Boards. Through these experiences, I have learned that the relationship between its governing Board and ED is fundamental to its operating effectiveness. In this case, it sounds like there was a break-down in this relationship and each side was operating independently.
An ED cannot guide an organization to success without the support of the Board. To build support, you need to recruit Board members who bring not only appropriate experience to the table but also a commitment to the organization and its vision. You also need to activity build a working relationship. This doesn’t happen at monthly or less frequent board meetings alone, and it certainly doesn’t happen with communication limited to e-mails and a letter. One-on-one engagement is essential to relationship building.
A Board has the responsibility not only to provide oversight to the organization, but also to ensure that the ED and staff are provided with appropriate support and direction to achieve their objectives. If the Board doesn’t have the interest or commitment to fully engage in the issues at hand (such as the Finance committee in this case), then they are doing a disservice to the organization. It is their responsibility to recruit and develop fellow Board members who bring appropriate experience to the table and a commitment to the organization and its vision.
I’ve seen effective Boards and disfunctional Boards. Ultimately, these situations break-down when the ED and the Board stop working together as a team. This appears sadly to be the case here. The “firing” should never come as a surprise. If there was a disconnect in performance versus expectations, then that discussion should have happened a long time before and an action plan provided. This is to the benefit of both the organization and the individual.
That said, when the Board received the resignation letter, it was appropriate for them to evaluate what is best for the organization and act on it. It’s not surprising that they would decide not to drag out the founder’s departure, as an extended transition can hold the organization back from making necessary change. We don’t have this side of the picture. so we have to respect that they took the course of action they felt was in the best interests of the organization. It’s unfortunate, however, that they chose to communicate this change in a negative way.
I hope the Board uses this as an opportunity to rebuild their infrastructure – both at a staff level and within the Board.
I hope the founder uses this as an opportunity to grow and focus more on relationship-building in their next position.
Will there be a similarly one-sided (and anonymously written) story in the next edition entitled “We, the Board, Fired our ED and Founder”?
This ED recruited new board members and is “pissed” that they didn’t side with her. Perhaps they, upon joining the board, realized what a wreck the NP was and were willing to put aside that personal relationship for the betterment of the NP. Clearly there’s a large part of this story that hasn’t been told, despite the “key facts being checked”.
For the record, I’ve been fired, too. I was, like this author, an angry, misunderstood, unappreciated victim of mean and nasty people who were out to get me. My termination was entirely baseless and had nothing to do with mistakes I’d made or the fact that I fit in about as well as a fish with a group of monkeys.
I would very much like to publish a First Person Nonprofit story from a board member who participated in the firing of a founding executive director. If you are such a person, please send a note and your contact info by clicking here. Thank you! Jan
I’m writing this quite a while after the original article, but I have to say that I had no sympathy whatsoever for the ED, who appeared to have a hide as thick as a buffalo.
It was obvious that this board had for a very long time been unhappy with the ED’s performance and was delighted to get the letter of resignation. Their mistake was in letting the ED drag things out. I am currently on a board that is trying to figure out how to fire the (founding) ED because he is unprofessional in his public behavior, including being rude to donors, volunteers, and board members — he does things such as foist details of his private life and financial troubles on them. He has been cautioned (in writing) after several embarrassing incidents. I wonder if issues like this were in play?
Just like the story writer, our ED perceives his board as a bunch of uptight bean counters (I loved the finance committee going over the finances in detail being a problem for your ED author!) who don’t “love” the organization the way the founder does. Sometimes an organization needs to be rescued from its founder.
Reading the comments on this article is just as interesting as the article itself. Many of you have echoed my thoughts so I won’t repeat them here, but for those of you who are throwing your hands up at how the Board/ED relationship can never work (contract term limits for EDs, sweeping disappointment in the sector) I remind you that this is one example from 1.5 million nonprofits across the country. I have been an ED of my organization for 4 years, and I have an excellent relationship with my Board. There are struggles from time to time, as well as great moments of satisfaction. The Board/ED relationship is human, and as such is complicated and sometimes unpredictable. I know plenty of EDs who have been with their organizations for decades doing amazing work for their communities, having survived many waves of turmoil and success. This in an interesting case study, but please keep this one story in perspective.
I’ve heard enough horror stories of great ED’s being driven away or fired by incompetent boards to believe it is fairly common. I have been an ED for 20 years, and worked with many boards, but it wasn’t until last year that I had a board nearly destroy the organization, acting with the best of intentions of course. I think the model of nonprofit governance is designed to fail as much as succeed. It is too much to expect volunteer, inexperienced board members to know how or have the time or ability to oversee an organization, especially in smaller communities where the pool of board members is limited, and especially when the organization runs into trouble (often created by the board, e.g. failure to fundraise, etc.). Perhaps I’m jaded, but I don’t understand why it is acceptable to allow (nay, invite) people who may know little to nothing about the field in which the organization works or the history of the organization to come in as a board member and whether through incompetence or pettiness or whatever destroy the work of many people over many years, and not just the work but the livelihoods. I have known good board members and bad, but none has had nearly the investment in the survival and well-being of the organization as the staff, especially the ED.
I don’t believe it is acceptable to invite people onto the board that know little to nothing about the nonprofit sector, little to nothing about the organization, and little to nothing about the mission. Every board member should bring something to the table that further enhances the success of the agency. You shouldn’t be recruiting a bunch of inexperienced board members that don’t know anything about what they are doing any more than you should be hiring inexperienced staff members that don’t know what they are doing.
Also, in general I think there is very little board training at most organizations. Part of the reason why the boards don’t know anything about the organization is because no one bothers to sit down with the new members and talk to them about the history of the agency. If you have someone serving on a board for the first time, either the ED or some other board member should spend quite a bit of time with the new board member explaining to them about the nonprofit sector and their roles and responsibilities as board members. Before someone becomes a board member someone should explain to them their role in the fundraising process.
Too often we just recruit a board member because they have a big name in the community and never bother to really explain the responsibilities of being a board member before we sign them up or give them the proper training to succeed. If you have a completely unqualified board that doesn’t know what they are doing, you should take a serious look at your process of recruiting and training board members.
On recruiting for the board: I have been a board member and staff member for nonprofits for 25 years, sometimes sequentially for the same organization. I think it is interesting that no-one has mentioned asking the Board to recruit Board members — this has actually been the usual pattern in the nonprofits I've known, maybe because many were small and had minimal paid staff if any. To have the ED the primary recruiter for the Board does mean that if the ED is not a good or thoughtful recruiter, the Board may be ineffective or otherwise inadequate for the job. In the nonprofit I currently work for, the Board is recruited by the ED (who suggests candidates to the Board) and also by a Board nominating committee. In addition, the nominating committee is responsible for orienting the new Board members and each Board member is assigned a "Board buddy" who has a longer history with the organization. The Board has also recently set a policy that when possible, a potential Board member should be asked to serve on a Board subcommittee, such as fundraising, which also includes non-Board members from the community. That allows a mutual evaluation period to determine if the person would fit well on the Board and is willing to serve the organization in that capacity. Our current ED began as an off-board committee member, moved to the Board, then Board president, and finally to ED when we were able to expand to that level of paid staff. Leslie
Interesting story and comments. However, some points have been missed:
1. The Board is responsible for evaluating the ED on a yearly basis. The Board Chair is responsible for oversight of the ED on an on-going basis. Does not seem that this ever happened.
2. The Board also should do a self evaluation regarding their functioning on a regular basis.
3. The ED along with the Board is responsible for Board development – i.e. helping the Board understand their role (vs the staff roles) and their responsibilities (financial oversight, making sure the organization is following the laws re employment, non-profit status etc., representing the organization to the community).
Overall it seems that the ED stayed on too long and set up a negative situation when she kept telling the Board that she was leaving, but did not set a firm timeline and date and transition plan. Do not say you are leaving unless you are prepared to act soon on that statement. In addition, the Board owned her an explanation for her termination–maybe they gave it and it was left out. I would like to hear form the Board on this one. However, unless some things change it seems that this organization is in serious trouble. I hope they get some help.
The worst part in my mind was the email the board blasted that at best disrespected the outgoing ED and at worst disparaged her reputation. That was unprofessional and – more importantly – damaging to the organization. The board is by law required to protect and promote the organization, not damage it. Funders, donors, clients, and customers do not want to see the dirty laundry made public.
Also by law, the board is responsible for the financial well-being of the group. If they had not spoken to the ED before and formally warned her of their concerns, with instructions on how they wanted her to proceed, then the board was out of line blaming her for the financial problems.
Yes, sometimes Founder’s Syndrome kicks in and the founder should move on for the good of the group. However, for the good of the group, the transition can always be handled in a smarter and more thoughtful manner by all parties.
There was a recent case involving mass negative emailing. I believe the offended party won a nice lawsuit for defamation.
Blue Avocado – just curious, who did you “corroborat(ed) the key points of her story” with? And why not present more than one side if you went through that effort? Clearly, there is much more to the story and it really doesn’t seem very educational or instructive to present only one heated side. Help us all learn here, if that’s what you aim to do.
We checked on the key facts by contacting other people who were not aware we were asking as part of an article. And the reason we didn't add the "other side" is that this is a First Person Nonprofit story and not one of our journalistic pieces. When we do a journalism article (like the one on the Vanguard Foundation) we present as many sides as we can find. We believe there is a different, unique value to First Person Nonprofit stories, and we want to let the writers' perspectives come through as clearly as possible. And such stories are part of our ethos: a group of people becomes a community by sitting around the campfire and telling stories about themselves. Thanks for the question, Jan
While a few respondents have suggested this first-person piece was not instructive, the extensive and well-framed responses certainly are! What a great way to get at the issue of fiduciary responsibility, relationship management, board development, personnel management, internal and external communication, and the founder-board dynamic. – Sean
as one earlier responder said – bingo!
+1 to both Jan and Sean. There are extremely helpful lessons and insights to be learned here.
My founding CEO dismissal is different. I was allowed to pick a resignation date, was given a generous severance package in recognition of my years of service and have maintained excellent relationships with some of the staff and some of the board. It was still painful, but I emerged with my dignity intact.
What happened? The board was too big and cliques formed. A group of people who were very effective at bringing in money wanted to control how the organization was run. I thought they were usurping many of my roles and overstepping their bounds as board members. Each side’s concerns had merit (theirs and mine). Sometimes it’s just time to move on.
After grieving for the job I loved with an organization I nurtured, I have moved on to a similar job with a smaller, more loving board. I communicate with them constantly so that we all know we’re on the same page. This is another start-up and I’m learning from the past while enjoying the present immensely.
In terms of the firing, I think Elenor and others are exactly right, the board showed very poor form in the manner of the dismissal and I would be very surprised if it doesn't reverberate negatively across their community for some time to come. As a consultant with a practice serving as Interim Executive Director for nonprofits in the DC area (and, by the way, I take serious issue with consulting not being "a real job"!) I have observed a pattern that often results in an unhappy departure of the ED. 1. First a new ED is hired, everyone's happy, and the board begins to disengage as the ED takes charge. 2. For a few years all goes well, with the same board who hired the ED remaining, and the ED rightly begins to adjust the organization to his/her vision. Meaningful communication with the board decreases because both sides deem it unnecessary. 3. As the ED makes more and more important decisions with the board serving only as rubber stamp, new board members begin to replace those who hired him/her. A crisis may arise or a mistake may be made resulting in the board taking a harder look at the organization and the ED's performance. 4. When this occurs the ED, who is used to autonomy, feels threatened. That heightens the board's suspicions and desire to micromanage. Because the two parties lack experience in healthy communication (think of a bad marriage…) differences are unresolved. 5. Eventually this leads to a parting of the ways (but hopefully done with maturity, understanding and the well-being of the nonprofit in mind, unlike the present case). As evidence of this I am constantly amazed at how few boards conduct regular, meaningful evaluations of their EDs – no wonder miscommunication is a problem. Katherine Morrison Morrison Nonprofit Transitions
As a founder and board member, I could see the handwriting on the wall after we hired our first full-time ED. For years, I was unable to get anyone else on the Board to do anything, attend committee meetings, etc. For years they asked me to do just about everything the Board was supposed to be doing, and like a fool I did it. After the ED started, they started treating me like I was the problem, so I resigned “happily” and left. After that, when they began asking for my help, I said “no”. Two years later they fired their wonderful ED. With time I have come to realize that I recruited them and I enabled them to not do their job and so I caused my own downfall. The person who wrote this article will have to come to the same painful conclusion, but right now it is all pain. And, it is unfair.
Wow. I guess I have been totally misguided in my image of non-profits. I thought that compassion was almost a prerequisite for working in this field. I was blown away by the number of responses that finished the evisceration of Elenor that her board started. Writer after writer assumed guilt and only a couple pointed out that, no matter what the circumstances were within the organization, she was not treated well. (I can only imagine how the board views the organization’s client base.) She was the founder, for pity sake! How are they going to explain this in their organizational history? This wonderful woman founded this great NFP and oh yeah, we fired her.
I left the for-profit world because I couldn’t stomach the idea that people are a commodity and profit was all. You all have certainly opened my eyes. And I don’t like what I see.
The writer of the article is not Elenor. Elenor is a reader who submitted a comment.
I couldn’t agree more. You would think relationships and dedication would count for something, but sadly, it seems when it comes to money, they do not. Seems like the board and board member in general would often rather drown the baby to save their own face. My guess is this organization is on its way to total collapse as we speak, having already been in financial trouble, with a board that was apparently reluctant or indifferent to fundraising, and firing the leader of what she said was a great team, unexpectedly, without a plan – good luck pulling out of a financial nosedive on that one.
Sorry to burst your bubble, Anonymous, but after 25 years in the nonprofit world, I know from personal experience that nonprofits have the same mix of “good eggs” and genuinely heartless people as you’ll find in any other sector. I was laid off 2-1/2 years ago from a national health organization…no notice to me. Just a surprise, quick meeting in the E.D.’s office, then escorted to my area to collect my personal items, and shown the door.. wasn’t even allowed to turn off my computer or send a brief good-bye message to co-workers… The kicker is, this organization has a Huge human resources department…but please note for future reference: it’s “Human” Resources, not “Humane Resources”…
Nonprofits are all about mission. While that is different than the for-profit world that is all about profits, it is not just a feel good and happy place where everyone gets along. If getting rid of your founding ED is the best for carrying out the mission, then that is what the organization should do (even if your ED is a wonderful person that has done great things for the organization in the past). The people that work for the nonprofit are not more important than the mission of the agency (that includes the founder). It isn’t about who is more dedicated and who has built what relationships, it is about who can best accomplish the agency’s mission. Nonprofits strive to maximize their mission. Welcome to the nonprofit sector.
Thank you for this response. I, like the author of the piece, was a founder and was fired. The twist to my story however, was that I had a business partner who orchestrated my termination. I was clueless until she personally delivered the letter of termination to my home one evening.
I was out of work a year and a half. Moved out of state to accept an executive director position and darn, if it didn’t happen again. I was with the organization 8 months only to have a volunteer meet secretly with the board of directors and convince them that he was a better fit. I was fired and he was in the position the very next day.
I’m back looking for work….it’s a shame that nonprofit organizations can forget that their missions are charitable!
Having been a Board President at one time and an ED for another organization this story really hits a lot of my buttons. The Board clearly has responsibility for financial over site of the organization and if the information is correct they were remiss in doing so. Being fired as an ED of an agency you started is extremely emotional and so I understand her need to vent though she should have left long ago. I think the way the Board handled it, treating like an embezzler was inexcusable.
I hope the Board and the ED can overcome all the drama and trauma but I doubt it. She will no doubt have trouble getting another position because she was fired and the Board will have trouble finding another competent ED once word gets out how they handled the termination of this ED.
I had the same thing happen to me. Fortunately, in my case, the Board quit (all 10 of them) and I’m still here. I don’t think the conventional model of nonprofit governance by a volunteer board works. You end up with people who know little about the mission or what it means to be a board member. The possibility of narrowly focused group think is always present. In my case, a few board members confused their role with staff, and actually took formed a committee to take control of a multi-year complex project away from staff. Of course, they floundered, but did great damage to relations with outside partners, agencies, and internally between staff and board. I agree, recruit your board members very carefully.
I completely agree with the comment that the conventional model of nonprofit governance does not work. Why would a group of often untrained volunteers have the power over someone who has dedicated ten years of their life to making something happen? As a consultant for np organizations I see this over and over again. The ED is there everyday, and their livelihood depends on their work. Then temporary volunteers come in with “good ideas” and can ruin not only the nonprofit, but the ED’s livelihood. It is an unequal power balance. EDs, and professional NP staff in general, need much more respect in the nonprofit sector. Much of the so called best practices are really wrong (as reflected in many of the comments here). The Board should not have more power than the ED as this sets up the wrong dynamic. It is interesting because the power imbalance reflects the societal power imbalance that most non-profit organizations are trying to address. Board members, who often make much more money than the ED, have power over the ED. Are we internalizing the oppression in our system of nonprofit governance?
I would like to recommend my favorite book on the topic:
Arts Boards: Creating a New Community Equation, written and compiled by Nello McDaniel and George Thorn.
It’s such a wonderful model of Board / Staff collaboration for smaller organizations, and, I would think, whether they are Arts Organizations or not. It just dissolves the mythology of the Board having power over the E.D. which was appropriate back when the wealthy put money together to create a symphony, for example, but simply doesn’t apply when this financial model is not in place.
If a group of like-minded people form an organization or a founder starts a cause, the concept of the Board having power over the E.D. is inappropriate. Arts Boards posits a collaborative model without the “us vs them” divide that plagues so many organizations. It’s a far more appropriate business model for many, many nonprofits and was a core textbook at the Columbia Graduate School’s Nonprofit Management program many moon’s ago.
This commentary is refreshing from the perspective of seeing that I’m not alone in experiences here at this NP. Whoever submitted this anonymous post on 6/10 at 20:44 – thank you! You hit the nail on the head!
Hooray for this comment. I’ve seen several organizations, founded to address power imbalances in society, where the board abused its authority/power with the ED and other staff. It’s an unfortunate pattern. It says to me that, for those organizations, it’s not enough to have a couple board members who have mission-related expertise, while everyone else is recruited for professional skills, money/connections, prominence, or other factors. Sigh.
I think your comments deserve a 10+! I experienced similar devastating events as an ED of a NP organization whose board was bullied by a chair who was a control freak, a dangerous and malicious person, and who had no compunction about holding the rest of the board hostage to threats of withdrawing charitable support. I ended up being a persona non-grata after 16 years of co-founding the organization, after leading the creation of an effective and award winning national model and at the 11th hours of initiating an exciting new program component. This component was axed because the bully ‘woke up’ after being distracted with personal issues for the better part of 12+ months and convinced the rest of the board that the new program would steal the thunder from the core program. (The new program component was adopted by another organization and has since become a model for local economic development.) I’m convinced that the underlying issues at work within the dynamics of that BOD were ego, control, fear, and lack of courage by the majority of the board to move forward with their convictions and the agreed upon vision. The biggest problem I see again and again with the NP sector is that the BOD have too much power, too often more power than talent and experience. When a BOD is faced with a difficult decision or conflict, they too often cave to destructive patterns and end up responding according to peer pressure and their own personal and emotional dysfunction. It’s too bad that the practice of cannibalism persists in the NP sector.
I think that if your entire Board quit, leaving you in charge of an organization that they were not willing to remain responsible for, you might well be in denial about what’s going on with your leadership. You’re presuming that those ten people over-stepped their responsibilities, realized that they’d screwed up, and benevolently decided to get out of the way to let you go back to doing your good job without their interference.
Based on my own experience on Boards with both effective and ineffective ED’s, my own conclusion (admittedly based on no facts other than what you have provided) is that ten people with various perspectives and competencies all somehow lost confidence in your leadership, but decided that they did not care enough about the organization to go through the extremely difficult and painful process of replacing you. After all, what would all that hassle have in it for them? And what did they realize that you are unwilling to see?
The Board is not there to preserve the ED, the Board is there to establish and support the mission of the organization for the benefit of the cause(s) that it serves and thereby the people of the state in which it resides.
You hit the nail on the head with the flawed conventional model of nonprofit governance. All too commonly, E.D.’s are paralyzed from running their agencies because they are chasing and catering too many relationships. Not to mention being second-guessed at every turn by unqualified people who have never even worked in that profession. And don’t get me started on all the brain storming sessions that staff always get caught in the middle of. It’s nothing more than a contstant hamster wheel of oppression that leaves staff powerless and prevents any meaningful work from getting done. I’m seriously re-evaluating my future in the nonprofit sector because of this. Twenty four years is long enough perhaps.
My limited experience with NFP’s leads me to believe that Executive Directors should have term limits, just like Board Members. If the ED’s contract is for the same length as the board members (say 3 years) and is limited to an initial term and 2 renewals, everyone is under the assumption that ‘moving on’ is a natural part of leadership. It adds some fire to the planning process, and the ability to leave a mark on the organization requires concentration on either making immediate change or on adopting a strategic long-term plan. Without the ‘up and out’ attitude, everyone (ED and board members) fall into an attitude of ‘well, I don’t like it but I won’t complain beause maybe it will take care of itself next (month/meeting/year)’. The organization benefits if it can avoid this institutional indifference. And hiring an ED who has suffered the consequences of working in such an environment almost assures that you are getting someone who WILL speak up, WILL take a position and fight for it, and will NOT be afraid to move on if it’s not a right fit…. Of course, few NFPs are willing to hire someone that isn’t beholden to the board for their job.
With few exceptions, I believe EDs know more about their organization than the board. An effective ED must know her/his board and be good at communication and the art of persuasion.
And with regard to term limits, I disagree as a result of personal experience. There were 52 applicants for my position. The board narrowed the choice to a young woman who was working for an insurance company and myself with many years experience, not only in non-profits but in our particular type of non-profit. For several months I wondered why there had been no one else with comparable experience, and what would have happened to the organization had the board chosen the young woman from the insurance company.
I am concerned for the day when I decide to move on. There are too few qualified applicants to make term limits for EDs an effective means to operate.
And, after working for another board and coming to realize that their vision for the organization was limited, I didn’t wait to be fired or give several months notice. I gave them one month and didn’t look back. Ironically, my newer position is as a funding source for that organization.
I agree completely. Most EDs and NP staff know the organization significantly better than do the board. Board members have term limits for various reasons: because they are volunteers, because the scope of their responsibilities will eventually require new blood, etc. Conversely, there should be SOMEONE there who knows the organization’s operations and relationships well enough to provide some continuity, institutional knowledge and steady leadership. That person is the ED.
I don’t agree with the concept of term limits for EDs. I think the ED can help to provide continuity to an organization that rightly enjoys a rotation of board members as a way to engage a continually renewing crop of community members and other constituent groups. HOWEVER, I believe that EDs should recognize that they need to move on for the benefit of their organization. I’ve done this several times — realizing that the organization could benefit from new ideas and a fresh persepctive. I see my role as ED as building the organizational capacity for change (growth or retrenchment), including empowering staff and board to manage change effectively — not just to weather it but to use change as a springboard to new services, organizational restructuring, etc. Therefore, from the day I arrive in a new ED position, my job is to prepare the organization (although I don’t express it this way!!!) for the time when I or other critical staff members decide to move on. I don’t believe that an ED should stay at the helm for more than 10-15 years. I have seen what happens to agencies when the long-time ED leaves — some organizations take years to recover and generally run through 1 or 2 or 3 new EDs along their road to recovery.
I think this story really has three components: personal treatment; board responsibities; and realistic non-profit revenue models. The author was treated horribly, she wasn't accused of embezzling, yet she was treated that way by the board – give your keys immediately and don't go anywhere without an escort, etc. Apparently no one on this board even said, 'Wait a minute, she's been here x years and no one deserves to be treated this way, etc." The second issue is that of board responsibilities, they are responsible for the financial health of the organization, but according to the author, they had ignored this for at least several years. This is a failing on everyone's part and it is related to the third issue, having a realistic revenue model for non-profits. The third issue, of a realistic non-profit revenue model is one where I see many non-profits failing, and falling into the trap of the latest fad. The fundamental difference of the non-profit sector is that it is that of realistic revenue model always includes a charitable income component. I'm purposely not using the phrase "business model" because I think that misleads and clouds the issue, and makes it easy for board memberst to think that a non-profit is just another business, not a unique and different type of organization. The term "revenue model" is a better fit, and while some non-profits can manage with a high percentage of earned income programs, the truth is that the vast majority of non-profits require charitable donations to exist. Once the non-profit world recognizes that fact, instead of jumping on the latest fad to be hyped, (whatever it's called, social enterprises, earned income, etc.) it allows energy and attention to focus on the true priorities of the non-profit. Regards, Bill Huddleston The CFC Coach www.cfcfundraising.com The Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) has generated more than $ 1 billon of unrestricted funds for thousands of local, national, and international non-profits over the past 5 years. The single largest reciepient is the Red Cross which gets about $7 million annually. How much did your non-profit get?
100% agreed. And good job with the IM at the end 😉 Most np professionals haven’t got the first clue when it comes to marketing.
Finally a response that concentrates on possible solutions rather than on finding fault.
I totally agree.
Dear Friend, Not only did they fire you, but they did it in the worst possible manner. As a VP of HR at a large company, I've been involved many times in people losing their jobs. Done well, it doesn't have to be the nightmare that you were subjected to. Basically, don't treat the person leaving as a criminal; rarely do employees harm their computer, the files, etc. Let people leave with dignity. Leave the door open so you can call them with questions, tell them you are sorry it worked out this way, have one or two people speak with them, not a full Board or Committee. Now what? I'd recommend you write the full story in your journal – it helps to get your thoughts organized, and on paper. Also, find something you love to do, and spend a few weeks focussed on that – whether it is gardening, fingerpainting or scuba diving .. use the time to replenish your resources. Then you will have the energy to develop a plan for moving forward professionally – perhaps in a completely different direction. Good luck! Elenor
Increasingly, npo staff leavings – of whatever nature – are treated as criminal acts. The leaving staff treated as though they had maimed someone. It is the most bizarre behavior. Especially with npos that have mission statements that would gag a bible for all their holiness, the current standard of treatment is all the more abhorent.
Exactly. In many, many layoffs of co-workers that I’ve witnessed (my own included) the departing staff member could not have been treated any worse if she had been caught embezzling or molesting a client. Get them out of here fast–they’re persona non grata now.
Thank you for posting this response. The fact that it’s from a professional, and that that professional reflects the (apparent!) fact that we’re all humans and that, *gasp*, nonprofits are supposed to be charitable and in the public-interest, is a needed response. I would never support a nonprofit which I knew the board behaved in this way. If the ED or CEO was not criminal or corrupt in some way, there’s no excuse for the behavior toward the ED and founder. I’m both amazed and sickened at how many people commenting here think the manner of firing was OK; the board is the one who should be thanking the founder for the good run, not the other way around. If a founder is treated in this way, how can a board be trusted to be truly interested in carrying out a charitable mission (and why should anyone seriously consider going through all the work of founding a nonprofit)? It makes no sense. The board members sound like they don’t have a charitable (or communicative/transparency) bone in their bodies.
Thank you for sharing your story. The decision to do so can’t have been an easy one.
I agree with Christine’s comment that the writer’s feelings are scattered and that there is more to this story. As the president of a board, I believe the writer’s board was wrong not to be up-front with her. Communication is the key to success. On the other hand, the lack of professionalism in the writer’s emotional venting leads me to believe her board felt they could not communicate, in a reasonable way, with her. Though I feel for the writer’s sudden unemployment, I think she would benefit from less blaming anger, and more self-examination. Always interesting to read people putting themselves completely “out there.” Thanks for publishing this story.
This sounded like a sobbing rant you’d phone your (always understanding) girlfriend with. Here she admits that she’s told the board on and off over the past few years that she’d be leaving, finally gives them a date and then is shocked, shocked! to be terminated ahead of her resignation date. I’m sorry for her suffering… but she needs to put on her big-girl panties and get on with it.
I worked for an ED one time who kept threatening to resign and it became so difficult for the staff and the Board to trust him. It felt as though he was saying that if we did or said something with which he disagreed – that he would use his threats to get his way. He also was quite shocked when the Board finally accepted his resignation. The only mistake they made was to allow him to come back into the office where he immediatley took out his wrath on the staff.
I agree with Christine, this is a train wreck. If you are asked to go (not all that unusual for most people, certainly including me more than once), stand up and shake their hands. Smile. Be polite. Thank them for a great run. Ask what the next policy is (a locked door is typical). Ask how to retrieve your things. Then leave, and make no additional contact, friendly or otherwise.
This ED’s case is fairly clear to understand. This ED is running an organization that is losing money, and she is a hothead that makes polite discussion difficult. I’ve never heard of an ED that survived on that basis. Heck, I’ve been in calm money-making situations and not survived. Just move on. There is plenty of demand for anyone who knows NPO governance, fundraising, and grant writing.
GREAT advice on what to do if you're fired.
Seems like this is a very one-sided story. The board obviously had very serious financial concerns. On the emergency level. So the fact that the writer has been going over the financials in “painful detail” on a monthly basis alludes to a complete obliviousness on his/her part. In fact, throughout the whole article, the writer does little but say the board members are all bad board memebers. It’s all their fault. That right there says a lot.
Either way, it’s tough to get let go from the organization you started. But if the visions and goals of the organization will now be better served, in the bigger picture, this is good.
“Recruit for personality”? I sincerely hope that when the wounds heal, this person will take some different lessons from this episode.
Absolutely. It sounds like founders syndrome run amok, to the point of building the board in his/her own image. The most difficult thing for founders to accept is that the organization does not belong to them.
I’m not sure “personality” was the right word, but in essence I agree with the original author. The values and personality of the board as a group are supremely important. For good decision-making, you need people who will question assumptions, recognize that other people’s perspectives may be valuable, and call out bad behaviors.
That being said – I don’t know enough about this particular situation to judge much about it, and neither does anyone else whose only information is what the author wrote in this column. So I’m not saying, “THE problem in this situation was the board’s personality.”
For years, we’ve heard “You need to run [name your favorite non-profit] more like a business.” And while we have only one side of the story, the board took that advice to heart, for this is how businesses run – well, minus the golden parachute.
Based on this account, the ED was, of course, mistreated by her board. It’s inexcusable that they didn’t respond to her letter of resignation, for example. At the same time, I’m sure the board has their side of the story, and we don’t know what that is. So, while it may be cathartic for this individual to share how she was treated, I don’t know how useful it is for readers. We really would need more information to make judgments about good vs. bad governance practices. As a former board chair myself, I found one comment particularly suspect: the idea that regular executive sessions at board meetings are “warning signs.” In my view, such a practice is just good governance. The board needs independence from the ED to do its job effectively. (And I’m not a fan of EDs being voting members of the board, for similar reasons.) At our board, we always have a first exec session with just the ED and then a brief one following with only the board, in order to allow for any other concerns to be aired. Usually it’s a non-event, but occasionally something important comes up; the board president follows up with the ED by phone the next day to convey any concerns that were discussed. As long as the board-ED relationship is strong and communication is transparent, there is nothing to fear in this appropriate delineation of roles.
I have been ED of a non-profit for 12 years, and have also chaired NPs myself, and I agree with this commentator completely.
Agree completely with above comments. Currently serving as the Chair of a NP Board. Our ED is present at every meeting to give an ED report, and stays for the treasurer’s report, new business and old business. She leaves at that point. Sometimes the meeting ends there, sometimes we have issues that we need to discuss further.
I want to address the issue of executive session and how they can be misused by a board. I resigned as ED of an organization after the board met at 3 consecutive quarterly business meetings in executive session (to which I was not invited). The by-laws and policy manual clearly spelled out under what circumstances an executive session could be held (ED performance review, salary & contracts, real estate contracts, etc.), but the board quickly developed the habit of having 2 board meetings — the public one that including staff and members of the community and the closed-door executive sessions that became bitch sessions for several board members unwilling to discuss their issues/concerns/ideas in public. A weak board chair who was controntation-advserse allowed this behavior to continue even as it eroded staff confidence (not just mine but that of other staff — and I never discussed my concerns about the executive sessions with staff). Constituents/clients/funders also became alarmed that something bad was happening at the NFP and started asking questions of staff. I expressed my concerns several times with the board chair, but it appeared he was in the thrall of a couple of vocal board members who kept on demanding executive sessions to discuss everything from the color of the walls in the office to what happened 10 years ago when so-and-so did such-and-such. (A concerned board member shared with me some of the discussions in these executive sessions.) When I announced I was leaving, the board what surprised and concerned, especially as other key staff left over the next 18 months — taking with them years of expertise, institutional memory, community contacts, and goodwill. What the board finally had to re-learn in the face of community distrust is that the most effective organizations are those with a high degree of trust, professional regard, and commitment among board and staff — a two-way street. Closed door meetings that become a routine way of doing business undermine, in very short order, the mututal trust and respect that can be built over the years. Executive sessions are designed to provide a forum to discuss in full confidential such matters as contract negotitation, salary & wage schedules, etc. They are not designed to contravene the organization’s by-laws and policies nor do an end run around staff, clients, and funders.
Nonprofit organizations are interesting creatures. I was a consultant for a np, building their development and marketing departments from the ground up. I had been working at this for three years. The new ED (the first for the organization) BTW, my contract was w/ the Board, not the ED!fired me after 4 months and then sent an email to the entire Board letting them know.
Once an ED was in place, you worked for him/ her, not the Board.
I too found this interesting, but perhaps more from the standpoint of analyzing the narrator. The story speaks to control issues: “I let them”, and “I recruited them”, and “if I were a voting member of the Board.”
One might reason that the issue is really one of capability of management: good communication, trained leaders, teambuilding, trust. It’s also true that organizations outgrow their founders and need to move on.
There are, of course, more graceful and less hurtful ways to effect change–but this Board seems very well organized, having anticipated all of the CEO’s responses and — apparently — understanding that a total and complete breakup of the relationship was the only way it could move in the direction it wanted to go.
I found this interesting to read – in a watching a train wreck kind of way. I ran through the emotions with her, could understand where she was coming from, despite not necessarily agreeing with some of the things she did. It's pretty raw and I give her some leeway for being a little scattered in her feelings. There's obviously a lot more to the story than we're getting. She had a feeling she was going to be fired, but then she felt blindsided? she picked all these board members, but then they were all bad board members?
I was extremely surprised to read the responses to this story – which in full disclosure I should say a version of which has happened to me so I understand many of the nuances – and to read, particularly in the early comments the criticism of the E.D. versus the board. While I definitely saw myself in many of the E.D.’s errors of, for example, letting things go for too long or perhaps giving away too much power to non-professionals, I was surprised that respondents missed the lack of business practices of the Board members described in the following passages:
“They consistently ignored the financial warning signs I pointed out, and they flat-out saw only limited responsibility for themselves to be fundraisers.
Nearly three years ago I missed another piece of evidence. A long time board member remarked that boards should have executive sessions at every meeting — without the CEO. And so they did.
Most important, they did not seem to grasp the fact that our mission required a mix of charitable and earned income. They believed that if we could just figure out the right business model we could survive on earned income alone.
The result? When they finally paid attention to the financial situation of the organization, they panicked.”
In my now long experience with many boards, I can definitely say that I have experienced all these scenarios: the board who told me and a trusted CFO that the 990 showing that the organization was in the red had to be wrong even if it showed that information for 2 consecutive years; the board that told me I didn’t know what I was doing because I refused to accept they didn’t want to fundraise and I should have taught them “how to do a raffle or something” (I have that in writing as a reason for non-payment of consulting fees); the nonprofit board that continues to refuse to believe that fundraising is a worthy goal and that earning income is the superior business model. I’ve seen more – the Treasurer who won’t spend a penny who becomes Chair and spends behind the Board’s back; the Board that signs off on anything as long as it is not required to do anything, even when the E.D. is embezzling and abusing staff (and later caught doing so).
What I have come to conclude about all this is that nothing beats training. I try to bring as much training to the table as I possibly can using all the influence at my disposal. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it gets me fired.
I have also seen Boards brimming with skills and enthusiasm as well as Boards without skills and eager to learn. But closed doors and secret sessions never did anyone any good no matter where problems lay. I have been amazed at the ability of people I have worked for in the non profit field to treat me and my colleagues with hostility and contempt. In all the years I served as an Executive Director or as a Director of Development I never saw a reason to do so. My beliefs and training are to thank staff and volunteers for their work, to train them to excel, or to do better than when I arrived. I had volunteers who left after 7 years only because they had to move to another country! I believe in relationships that continue long after the job role has ended. Why burn bridges?
So let’s imagine that this was the worst Executive Director ever – why let her go in such a dreadful way as to lose her connections for all those years? What a dreadful loss for the organization! Just this alone is terrible management on the part of this Board.
My motto is To finish with the Going Away Party. I know I am doing everything I can in my work relationships to make that happen, but unfortunately – try as hard as I can to Manage Up – not everyone I deal with is willing to engage in that party-making process.