The transition problems that can happen when founders don’t fully relinquish control to a new leader.
The job was a dream come true. I had become executive director of a organization where my love and loyalty had lain for years. I had started out there as a volunteer there right out of college. After working at other nonprofits I had come back to this organization — I’ll call it CW — as an employee, and had risen to the job of program director.
Less than a year after I became the executive director, the co-founders — who had never fully left the picture — fired me. They had brought in a consultant to “coach” me, and they hired him as the new ED. A year after that, this wonderful organization crashed and burned.
This is my story:
CW started because the founder — let’s call her Bridget — was an artist doing a major installation in a poor part of town. The local kids started hanging around and she and her husband — I’ll call him Colin — starting doing art workshops with them. Bridget was a visionary and inspirational leader, and she and Colin did wonderful, brilliant work with the kids. I remember one day we all pretended we were birds of prey. Many times they and the kids wrote rap songs together.
Young artists flocked to Bridget, wanting to learn from her, wanting to be near her, wanting to be like her. I was one of them. I thought of myself as an artist… but as it turned out, I became the “useful” one. I bought the group’s first computer, developed the first database, built the first website, and developed training for the many volunteers we attracted. I learned to write grant proposals.
I went to work in other nonprofits, growing my professional skills, and eventually became the Assistant Director of a $2 million nonprofit. All these years I was still volunteering for CW. And when CW finally had enough money to hire me as a part-time development director, I jumped at the chance, and supported myself doing freelance grantwriting for others part-time. I turned down job offers from many of those groups to keep working with CW.
The founders announce they are leaving
But after several years, Bridget and Colin decided the work was too exhausting and draining and they wanted to start their own family. They announced they were leaving and the board (Bridget and Colin and a few of their Ivy friends) began a search for the new executive director.
After some thought, I threw my hat into the ring. I wasn’t sure I was qualified, and I knew I had weak areas — particularly in staff management and supervision, where I’m not naturally talented. I also knew they wanted to hire a black or Latino person; CW’s staff and board leadership were all white and Ivy-educated (including me) and the kids we served were African-American and Latino.
They wanted someone who was not just a skilled nonprofit professional, but someone who could recreate the magic they had created.
They eventually settle for me
The board did one round of search and didn’t find anyone. They started over on a second round. During these nine months I kept having to show around all the applicants when they came for their interviews. My attitude was “grin and bear it.” I’m not easily self-confident, and it was an incredibly awkward period for me.
Then I was offered the job. I was excited! Happy! Honored! And also nervous. For instance, the board agreed with Bridget that the new Program Director would report to Bridget, not to me.
I was aware that I was making gaffes right from the start. I remember in the very first staff meeting — when Bridget and Colin were still attending staff meetings — I said, “I have lots of changes I want to make.” I had a very hard time supervising people who had been my peers. I assigned someone to re-organize the library, but then I did it myself. That hurt that person’s feelings. Meanwhile, it was clear that everyone who was unhappy was going to Bridget and Colin. Bridget was meeting weekly with staff at her house which was not far away.
Night of the faxes
One night I stayed late working on some budget analysis. I faxed out some information to the board members, and then realized I had left something out, so I faxed them a revision. I worked on it some more and sent them another fax showing it was even worse than my first two faxes. Looking back, it might have been the “night of the faxes” when they lost whatever confidence in me they had. And if I had been them, I might even have fired me after that night.
The board assigned two board members to meet weekly with me. They also also got me a coach.
Not everything went badly. We got a lot of new grants. We moved into a new site that involved getting a pro bono architect and overseeing the construction. I had two new staff and was successful in supervising them. Programming stayed mostly excellent.
But the board decided to hire a consultant they knew to monitor me, coach me and be in the office with me. I’ll call him Michael. At the cost of thousands of dollars a month, Michael made it his job to meet with each staff member, review all our written materials, grant reports, etc.
Don’t go into the basement!
One day he invited me to walk down the hall with him. When we got to the library, it turned out the whole staff and several volunteers had been assembled, and everyone was told to go around the round and tell me what they thought of me. I did my best to listen respectively and not burst into tears as each person aired their grievances in front of the others.
With my one-year anniversary approaching, I went out-of-town to visit a friend. That friend was also a friend of Bridget’s and was on the board (although she’d recently moved out of state). We went for a walk on the beach. As we walked, she told me that I was fired, that I was to be given two weeks of severance pay, and that Michael would be the installed as the interim executive director. Bridget and Colin had decided it would be “kinder” for me to hear it from my friend rather than from them.
I felt so betrayed, horrified, angry and devastated. I knew it wasn’t going well, but I felt I hadn’t been given enough of a chance. It was the worst thing that had happened to me in my life so far. I was crushed. Wrecked.
Were there any red flags? Everywhere!
When the search process took nine months, it should have been clear to me that nobody could live up to Bridget and Colin’s standards. I shouldn’t have taken the job then. When they decided that staff would still report to Bridget, I should have left. When they brought in Michael, I should have left.
In our organization, we had always thought we were different. We were creating new ways of doing things, our own ways that were better than how everyone else did things. So when these things kept happening, I still wanted to believe it would work in our unique organization.
For weeks I cried. I raged. I would walk down the street and start spitting obscenities.
Every couple of days I would wake up in a cold sweat frantic to try to fix things. I wrote in my journal constantly about how I should have done a better job.
It took me a long time to believe in my heart that I had done the best I could. They needed someone with bigger balls than me who could have stood up to them.
Shortly after I left, Michael left. The largest funder pulled its grant, which was 40% of the budget. The staff fell into factions based on racial makeup and competing visions for where the organization should focus its energy. They lost their office and defaulted on the city loan for the renovation. Bridget and Colin resigned from the board. Eventually it was rebuilt on a much smaller scale. I admit I get some satisfaction from seeing that their website still uses language I wrote way back then.
For me, I eventually got involved with something completely different in a big internet company, and eventually came back to being the executive director in a nonprofit. I’m still not an instinctively good supervisor, but I’m a lot better. Writing this story now I’m surprised at how much emotion I still have inside me about all this. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it.
About the Author
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