Getting blindsided by your own board — it’s every nonprofit founder’s nightmare.
Editor’s Note: 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we know the individual and corroborated the key points of her story, and we understand why she has asked that her name not be published.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, six 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 six 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.
- Firing the Executive Director
- Should the Board Hold Executive Sessions?
- Firing My Friend, the Founder, a First Person Nonprofit story
About the Author
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