Dear Nonprofiteer, Who’s on first?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

Our community-based nonprofit has some serious issues to deal with: we’re working to prevent the “ghost-town” syndrome, where foreclosures lead to abandoned housing and reduced shopping leads to abandoned retail.  To accomplish our goals, we need to spend a lot of time meeting with business people and gaining their confidence.

Our problem is our Executive Director (I’ll call him Ed), the guy who founded the group.  He’s the one with the clearest vision of what we’re hoping to achieve, and once you get him talking to a roomful of people no one can touch him for persuasiveness.  Ed’s problem is a tiny one, but it’s making me crazy: he can’t seem to keep to a schedule.  We sit in meetings and struggle to find a time when everyone can meet, and then 24 hours before the meeting he calls everyone and cancels.  When he does show up, he’s always 15 minutes late.

I know this is trivial but I think it makes us look unprofessional to our for-profit partners.  It also means that we’re always playing catch-up: things that were supposed to be done in November get pushed over to January, so we’re not moving as quickly as we should on our big projects.

For passion and vision, Ed is irreplaceable; so how can those of us on the Board work around his timing issues?

Signed, Stalled

Dear Stalled:

What you’re describing isn’t a trivial issue at all, but a failure of leadership.  The only way community organizations can operate is if people meet and come to consensus.  If they’re frustrated more than once or twice in their efforts to do so, they simply won’t bother: we’ve all got too many places we have to be to waste time on places where our attendance is optional, and probably useless.

No matter how persuasive and visionary Ed is–and no matter that he founded the group–leadership in a nonprofit rests with the Board of Directors.  That means you (if you’re the President) and a couple of other Board members need to sit Ed down at the end of the next scheduled meeting, and tell him it’s time for his performance evaluation.  Schedule that, and make clear he’s required to show up.  When he does, tell him what you’ve told me: that he’s inspirational but unreliable, and that the agency’s work is suffering because of his unreliability.  Ask him what causes him to cancel meetings, and how the Board can help him navigate those obstacles so he shows up, and on time.  And then tell him that this is a significant enough issue to the Board that you’ll be revisiting it in 6 months to ascertain whether the situation has improved.

And if he doesn’t show up for that meeting, write down everything you would have said in the meeting and have it delivered to him in the form of a written warning.

The thing small agencies, particularly those led by their founders, tend to forget is that the Executive Director works for the Board.  If you’re not happy with the execution you’re getting from Ed, you need to implement some leadership of your own so he understands that his behavior has consequences.  Make clear that you’re evaluating him based on this issue, and you’ll be amazed how quickly he learns to read a calendar and his watch.

Again, though, remember: this is NOT trivial; don’t present it to Ed apologetically, as though it were.  Your agency’s relations with the outside world depend on its image as a reliable and business-like partner; his behavior is compromising that image and thus those relations.  Moreover, his behavior is irresponsible, not the way leaders are expected to act.   Let him know that if he wants to maintain his leadership role, he’d better start showing up to enact it.

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