Dear Nonprofiteer, I’m F***ed and Far From Home

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am hoping you can give me some guidance.  I took a new position in Sept. 2007 with a small nonprofit organization as the Executive Director.  From the outset, there were complex issues to deal with–staff being slighted in the hiring process (after being assured by the Board Chair of involvement), a Program Coordinator that had been acting as Interim Director and not selected for the ED position, a Board Executive Committee (the ED search committee) that described the duties of the position as one thing (what I was looking for) without actually knowing that the ED needed to be MUCH more involved in the actual program delivery, and oh yeah…I was following the Founding Director who was beloved and only stepped down due to health reasons.

I worked hard to prove myself and try to win over the staff and others…yet have received push back from the staff, and the Board Executive Committee gives me mixed signals and no clear expectations or articulation of the criteria they will be evaluating me on.  This is extremely frustrating!  I’ve had issues with confidentiality (a Board Vice-Chair speaking directly to a staff member about issues/suggestions from my 3 month review without my knowledge or consent) and personnel (staff questioning and undermining my decision-making and leadership by having conversations directly with Board members without addressing issues with me first), and basically feel like I have no professional or personal allies or mentors within my organization.  I’ve been told that I need to communicate with them more effectively, yet I send messages where I am practically begging for guidance and receive no response. 

Is there a way to "vent" about this in a professional and productive manner to my "supervisors"–the Board Executive Committee?  Should I just throw in the towel and part company with this organization?  That is not at all what I want to do.  I feel strongly about the goals of the organization and want to stay in this community–I relocated my whole family (including 3 children under the age of 7) to take this position and don’t want to disappoint anyone, including myself.  Is there an online support group for disillusioned nonprofit leaders?  The tipping point came on Monday when I came in on my previously scheduled day off to a last minute meeting with one of program managers from a state grant with the executive committee, and basically got the wind knocked out of me with issues that I didn’t know existed.  HELP!

Looking for a Silver Lining

Dear Silver,

The Nonprofiteer is nearly ill with empathy, having experienced a similar situation herself back before the glaciers melted.  But here are some suggestions she wishes someone had offered her.

First, no, there is no safe way to "vent" about what’s going on within the confines of your agency: in a place as gossip-permeable as yours, you’re best off assuming that everyone hears everything you say, and if somebody’s got the knives out for you and hears you howling, that just encourages them.  Anyway, what you need isn’t to vent–it’s to correct the structural problems you’ve so ably identified.

Second, you may have no allies or mentors, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make some.  Take the Board President out to lunch (dinner, breakfast, bed-time snack), just the two of you, and tell him/her that breaches in confidentiality are making it impossible for the agency to operate properly.  (Emphasize the good of the agency, not your own well-being or ability to do your job, even though in this case they’re identical.)  Ask him/her how the two of you can solve this problem, and then suggest what the military people would call a pincer movement: s/he does x to the Board at the same time you’re doing y to the staff, thereby squeezing the problem people between you and giving them no place to go.  Specifically, ask him/her to meet individually with the blabbery vice-chair and any other Board members who’ve been having ex parte contact with staff members, and to explain to them that this is not the role of the Board.  (S/he can review this entry, if you think it will be helpful.)  Emphasize that you understand what a different approach this is from the days when the Founding Director was still there and the Board was essentially a support group for him/her and his/her staff; but emphasize with equal fervor that this new approach is essential to the success of the institution.  You can’t raise money to support the mission (yes, use those magic words "money" and "mission") unless you can be out in the community shaking hands and making friends, and you can’t do that if you’re being undermined at the office every time you turn your back. 

Do not leave this meeting without a commitment from the Board President to (a) rein in leaky Board members and (b) support you when you tell leaky staff members that their back-channel to the Board has been silted up, and that you’ll be glad to discuss with them any questions or concerns they may have about their jobs or the conduct of the agency.  If the Board President says, "I’ll think about it," you should be prepared to tell him/her–not in a threatening way; practice in advance, if need be–that you won’t be able to continue at the agency without his/her support on this matter; an Executive Director who can’t manage personnel can’t operate, and operating is what you’re being paid to do.  Be regretful, be tactful, be thoughtful–but be firm.  And if the Board President says, "I can’t make this decision alone," offer–with alacrity!–to restate everything you’ve just said to the Executive Committee, and if necessary to the full Board–but in a meeting to be specially and immediately called for this purpose.  Urgency is your friend: the Board doesn’t really want to have to replace you, and when it understands you’re not merely "venting" but preparing to leave unless a change is made, it may fall (albeit grudgingly) in line. 

Meanwhile, schedule a meeting with the Program Coordinator (and if you’re not meeting on a weekly basis with him/her and all your direct reports, you should be), and share with him/her what you’ve said here: that your position is turning out to include much more program responsibility than you had expected, and that you won’t be able to raise the money to support the mission (those magic words again!) if you’re simultaneously trying to operate the programs.  Appeal to his/her expertise and experience and ask for guidance as to how the two of you can approach the agency’s needs, as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside, as it were.  What aspects of program does s/he need help with, and what sort of help?–that is, is it really your help?  Ask how s/he balanced the program and fundraising/public outreach  responsibilities when s/he was acting ED, and most likely the answer will be, "I didn’t have time to do fundraising and public outreach;" to which your reply will be, "Exactly."

Unlike your meeting with the Board President, this Program Coordinator conversation doesn’t need to have a specific outcome.  You simply need to convey (and be prepared to convey repeatedly) that you respect his/her program tasks too much to try to do them yourself, and that his/her doing them is what’s necessary to enable you to do your tasks of fundraising and public outreach–which in turn is what’s necessary to enable him/her to do the program tasks, and so on and so on.  This won’t be simple, especially if the Program Coordinator is one of the people who keeps tattling to the Board, but it’s worth trying.

If the Board gives you the backing you need, then you’re in a position to press for additional backing, namely, the right to fire people who won’t fall in line.  Don’t mention this right up front, and don’t do what the Nonprofiteer did, namely, fire a long-time employee with the okay of the Board President alone–it unleashed a firestorm for which the rest of the Board was unprepared and in the face of which it caved, leaving the Nonprofiteer weaker than before.  But once the Board acknowledges that its only conversation with staff members is, "I’m sorry, you’ll have to take that up with the Executive Director," it will be ready[er] to grasp that staff members who won’t accept that for an answer might be happier somewhere else.

One final thing: Write a description of the job you think you’re supposed to be doing, and then write a list of all the things you’re doing that keep you from doing your job.  Take this list to the Board President (and the Executive Committee, once the President has the leaks plugged) and to the Program Coordinator and work with both to assign out or eliminate the non-essential aspects of your workload.  This is the only useful form of "communicating better" with the Board and staff–being clear on what you’re supposed to be doing, and on what someone else will have to do.

Remember: the reason the Board doesn’t give you guidance is that it doesn’t know what it’s doing.  The Boards left behind by Founding Directors often don’t.
So (to adapt a phrase) don’t ask, tell: tell them what you’re doing and
why, and what you’re not doing and why, and what you need from them to
enable the agency to thrive, and give them a chance to do it.

In other words: Don’t throw in the towel yet.  Try these suggestions and give it another 6 months–which would be until your one-year anniversary.  And don’t worry about the basis on which you’re going to be evaluated.  Define your job and do it, and the Board will evaluate and reward you accordingly.  Or if not: there are always other agencies that will.

Keep us posted on how you do.

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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, I’m F***ed and Far From Home”

  1. Silver Lining Found Says:

    Nonprofiteer, Thanks so much for the sage advice. Unfortunately I will not have the opportunity to actually use it. The above mentioned Executive Committee met in closed session Wednesday and notified me on Thursday afternoon that I was not a “good fit” for their requirements at this point. My services were no longer needed…effective immediately. I thought my 1 pm meeting was to discuss the agenda items for the Board of Directors meeting next week, but instead was given my marching orders. After the stress earlier in the week, I was really uneasy (which prompted my email to you!) and apparently I had a reason to be. I have never been in this position before and was literally stunned by the news. I guess I could have lived with the outcome (me leaving the organization) if I thought the process had been fair and professional. But I do not. They felt it necessary to skip the written warning, administrative leave and whatever other steps are outlined in the personnel handbook (I was told when I asked about those steps that they were not “compulsatory”). In reality, I think that last summer, the Board believed that they needed a new ED and I had the skills and energy they were looking for. Unfortunately, they didn’t know enough about what the actual work of the organization or its staff really was. They needed a Coordinator for the big grant from the state, not an ED. I was not the right person for the Coordinator job. I was in the final stages of hiring a new Coordinator to fulfill these grant requirements…meaning they needed to invest in the organizational infrastructure, and in me, without having a specific grant to fall back on. This was not something that they were apparently ready to do. I heard through the grapevine that the board is not planning on hiring an ED again yet, instead they will be hiring 2 program coordinators to take care of the grant deliverables and that both of those folks will be reporting directly to the Board Executive Committee. So I think it is safe to say that my “silver lining” here is that I now have the opportunity to find an organization or agency that will truly value the skills that I can bring to the table, I know some additional questions to ask in the interview process, and I certainly have more real world experience on how to handle (or not!) board and staff relations. I would love to hear from you and your readers any additional advice on how best to move forward, with confidence and professionalism. Thanks so much!

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Let me say how impressed I am with your professional response to the Board’s completely UNprofessional conduct. I’m sure any other agency will be delighted to have you. Meanwhile: please don’t forget that being fired without notice almost certainly entitles you to unemployment compensation. If you’re fired “for cause” that’s not always the case, so my suggestion is that you take the contents of this comment and convert it to a memo to the file, which you’ll have on hand to show the administrative officers in the unemployment office. Unemployment comp. will buy you time to find a job that better matches your skills and interests–and that’s less filled with a**holes.

    Best of luck, and please let me and my readers know if we can be of any concrete help. Tough times don’t last . . .

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