Dear Nonprofiteer, Can I be cruel to be kind?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m a non-profit development professional, and I’m about to make a horizontal job change from my current organization to a different one, in more or less the same position.  The new place has been wonderful about allowing me a month instead of two weeks to change over, because I have a lot of responsibility at my current workplace.  I have been drafting a very plain resignation letter which I intend to give to my supervisor in a few days, saying the usual "to pursue new opportunities," blah blah blah.

The real reason I’m leaving is because my current workplace’s development department is sinking, fast.  It’s organized incredibly poorly, my supervisor is detached and unsupportive, and the work of the other people in the department is undervalued, and the departmental morale sunk long ago.  There has been so much turnover in the department over the past year that it should be obvious that something is wrong – but no one in a supervisory position seems to even notice, much less change anything.

This is where my ethical dilemma comes in: I know not to burn my bridges and leave on a friendly note.  But I really do care about the mission of my organization, and I can see they’re heading for failure.  How do I let them know what would help without coming off as ungrateful, uppity, or destroying my reputation and my reference?  Signed, Not Crying Wolf

Dear Not Crying:

Your plain-vanilla resignation letter strikes me as just right.  A resignation letter is the wrong place from which to give advice, mostly because (regardless of the reality) it makes the author look as if s/he was too cowardly to say anything while still on the payroll.

But the same uncharitable interpretation of your attempt to help doesn’t apply to a summary you might write of your job duties for the use of your supervisor or successor.  Given your level of responsibility, this may be something you were planning to do anyway: an account of what you do all the time, for whom and why, and of what gets in the way.  It’s this final phrase that will give you your best opportunity to point out how things could be done better, provided you can keep it utterly impersonal.

Example: "Three times a year I supervise the promotion and conduct of the Goose-Greasing Event.  This benefit event was designed to appeal to our primary audience when we served mostly rural folk, but I’ve begun to wonder whether we couldn’t increase attendance by considering adoption of a more urban theme given Harlem’s recent rapid growth."  The structure–activity, rationale, suggestion for improvement–positions you as someone who understands why we do things the way we always have but also someone who’s thought of a useful variation.

That’s all very well (you say) if the problem were particular activities or events but the problem is that the supervisor is detached and unsupportive.  You’re right to fear that there’s nothing you can say about this directly that will have any effect–but, again, in a summary of your job duties you may be able to offer insight by indirection.  Example: "It might be very productive for a person in my position to call on individual donors in the company of Board members, but fundraising staff are expected to be visible in the office and direct contact with Board members is handled at a higher level.  You [successor who’s reading this] might try asking to spend one half day a week on these donor calls in order to test whether the money generated can make up for your temporary unavailability, and identify one or two Board members whom you might contact solely for this purpose."  Again: activity/policy, rationale, possible tweak. 

Finally, if none of this indirection is getting at the core problem–but you believe you have an analysis of the core problem which will enable someone to fix it–then write a different kind of summary, a "Prolegomena to Any Future Fundraising," identifying the five key things needed to make your agency a fundraising powerhouse and likewise identifying the obstacles to doing those.  Deliver this not to your supervisor but to the Executive Director.  Even here, your tone needs to be, "It’s been a pleasure and an honor to work here, and look at all the great things we’ve accomplished; I’m only sorry we couldn’t accomplish more, and I wanted you to be aware of some obstacles that seem to have fallen in the way of greater fundraising success." 

The rest of the Prolegomena, though, needs to be much more specific than you were with me.  Don’t say fundraiser morale is low; say fundraisers don’t do their best work because they can’t get the resources they need to execute new ideas (no budget for donor lunches?), or are expected to be in meetings with other fundraisers instead of with donors, or have all their new ideas shouted down or edited out of existence (no authority to send donor letters?), or are underpaid, or are expected to travel 50 weeks a year without recognition of the impact on their families, or are charged with executing fundraising plans they had no part in developing, or are obliged to spend half their time on projects that generate 5% of fundraising revenue and then criticized for failing to produce the other 95% in what’s left of their time.  The more specific you are, the less you sound like a whiner and the more you sound like what you are: a development professional whose best efforts were stymied by systemic difficulties.

This is only worth doing if you can identify a wise wo/man within the institution to whom a word would be sufficient.  But bear in mind, the Executive Director is as high as you can go.  Any attempt to reach out to Board members will paint you as a troublemaker with no respect for the way nonprofits operate–the very image you’re at such pains to avoid. 

I’m sorry to say that I doubt you’ll have much effect–if the place were fixable, it seems to me you and your fellows would have figured out a way to fix it–but it may be that the very thing you could never do before, namely, reach past your supervisor, is the thing that will do the trick.

Good luck, and please let me know how it goes.


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