Dear Nonprofiteer, Who Speaks for the Agency?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am the co-chair of a non-profit that trains female interns to provide mental health services for women and couples. When I joined the board in June 2007 and accepted the co-chair position by default, I did not (nor did my other colleagues) realize the depth of the whirlwind we entered.

We have recently discovered that the Executive Director and Clinical Director have had a longstanding strained working relationship that appeared to peak in January 2008. At that time, the CD unexpectedly announced her resignation to the ED via phone as she was going on a vacation and publicly to the faculty/supervisors, effective August. The CD is very well liked and this led to faculty members (who are volunteers) to express their longstanding critique of the ED’s leadership.

The faculty is now attempting to pressure the board to ask the CD to rescind her resignation and ask the ED to resign. Additionally, there have been a number of derogatory public and written commentaries about the ED’s performance/character from various folks that I wonder if can result in the agency being liable for defamation of character and/or slander. We need legal advice as to how to proceed. Also, the board is currently constructing a formal response to a letter that the CD publicly read and emailed to faculty members where she accused the ED of breaching personnel matters. In the letter, the CD also presented a public critique of the ED’s leadership that could also be interpreted as slander.

The board is very concerned about the splitting in the agency and the very inappropriate and problematic process that is in place. The faculty has not appointed the faculty representative to the Board, as they have been advised several times, but instead default to writing demands to the Board. It would be very helpful to receive your input and to have the letter to the CD legally vetted. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely, The Eye of the Storm

Dear Eye:

First things first: the Nonprofiteer, though she is a lawyer, isn’t in a position to offer legal advice about the situation you describe; she can only offer management advice. Whether a particular writing is slanderous is a complicated legal issue. But whether a staff member who makes possibly slanderous pronouncements should be permitted to keep her job is a simple management issue. Staff members don’t get to shame their supervisors in public, and employees don’t get to put the agencies they work for at risk of legal action.

So the Board of Directors’ formal response to the Clinical Director’s letter should be a very simple one: “We’re sorry to hear you feel the need to leave the agency, but since you do, we accept your resignation, effective immediately.”

Note: “effective immediately.” The best piece of human resources advice the Nonprofiteer ever heard actually came from Shakespeare: “If ‘twere done when ‘tis done, ‘twere well ‘twere done quickly.” An employee with an axe to grind should not remain around the institution with access to computers, personnel records, or anything else inside the front door. So people don’t get to resign furiously effective 6 months from now. Rather, once they’ve made clear the extreme nature of their dissatisfaction–“I quit” being an example of the necessary clarity–a representative of the agency should accompany them to the door, retrieve their key and wave goodbye. (Though this would ordinarily be a task for the ED, in this case the agency representative should be a member of the Board.)

To accomplish this smoothly, you need to put several pieces in place.

• Start with a conversation with a human resources professional or a lawyer. (You probably have one or both on your Board; but if you don’t, ask the agency’s banker whether you can have an hour’s worth of advice from the bank’s HR person.) This person will help you document the situation and your own actions in the upcoming encounters with the soon-to-be-ex-Clinical Director.

• Forge a united Board. How? Point out (as you have here) that the Clinical Director has put the agency at risk of legal action. Also make sure all Board members understand that outside the Boardroom they should say only that the Board accepted the CD’s resignation while exercising discretion about its timing. (If anyone presses about why it’s better to let the CD leave in haste than to replace her at leisure, you can simply say that personality conflicts were interfering with the agency’s effectiveness. No one should say more than that: conversations about who did what to whom will only fan the flames of unhappiness without affecting the outcome.)

• Find someone to step in as Acting Clinical Director. Maybe there’s someone appropriate on the staff; maybe there’s someone on the faculty (see below). This person should be identified by the Executive Director (who will, after all, be the one working with whoever’s chosen). Once the Board approves the ED’s choice, a member of the Board should accompany the ED to an in-person recruitment session. Let the ED do the talking–after all, she’s the boss–but the Board member should be there to make clear that the ED and her job offer have the Board’s full support. No sane person would accept the Acting CD position without such assurances.

• Calm the protesting faculty. If you’re able to secure a member of the protesting group as your Acting Clinical Director, that would kill several birds. (Yes, it’s unlikely that a protester would want to work directly with the Executive Director–unlikely but not impossible. Personal ego is a powerful thing!) But whether or not you accomplish such a Machiavellian maneuver, schedule a meeting with the protesters and all other faculty. You and your co-chair should allocate at least three hours for this meeting. Supply food, and listen. Once you’ve heard everything they have to say, explain that the Board will be working with the Executive Director to improve relations with the faculty. Ask them to designate a representative to monitor this process, and don’t leave the room til they’ve done it. But don’t debate the background with them: just repeat, “The Clinical Director has resigned. The Executive Director has the Board’s full support in moving forward.”

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying: back your Executive Director, or fire her. The Clinical Director was playing a little game in “resigning;” what she really meant was, “I’m going to threaten you so you fire her and promote me”. The Nonprofiteer despises games like that, and the people who play them; hence her view that the CD should be made to reap what she’s sown.

But. Backing the Executive Director doesn’t mean being blind to her faults. Your meeting with the faculty (and any parallel meeting that may be necessary with staff) will probably produce a huge volume of complaints. Your task will be to distill an ocean of objections to the ED’s personality into a couple of drops of advice about how to improve her management style, and then administer those drops in a private and supportive manner. “We think you’re great–we love the way you’re expanding our program–your fundraising skills are terrific–so let’s try to smooth out these rough patches with the faculty and staff.” The specifics of your advice will depend on the specifics of the complaints against her; but if they say she’s “high-handed” that probably means she’s not talking to them regularly and frequently enough, and if they say she doesn’t understand what they do that probably means she’s not listening to them regularly and frequently enough.

The people who are complaining about the Executive Director probably have something useful to contribute to the discussion, but they’re not the people responsible for the future of the agency. Those of you who are, by taking a calm and matter-of-fact approach to the management challenges you face, will be able to prevent governance by peanut gallery.


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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Who Speaks for the Agency?”

  1. Vince Del Says:

    The style of writing is very familiar to me. Did you write guest posts for other bloggers?

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      If you’re in Chicago, you may be familiar with my writing from the Reader or the Tribune–and I talk just like I write, so if you’ve heard me on Chicago Public Radio the blog might sound familiar. You may also have seen my work in the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal, though probably not frequently enough to recognize the style.

      I cross-post The Nonprofiteer with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, so you may have seen my work there.

      Otherwise, no, I don’t guest-post with other bloggers. Five days a week of my own work is more than enough!

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