Dear Nonprofiteer, What happened to the agency we knew, yester-me, yester-you, yester-day?*

Dear Nonprofiteer:

For the last year I have been hovering near the Board of a small startup nonprofit I respect.  I started as a donor, and I think I was about to be invited into the boardroom.  Now our dealings are stalled, if not worse, and I don’t know what to do.

I learned about the organization two years ago from an old, somewhat close friend who had been doing some consulting work for it.  I’d agreed with her when she spoke excitedly about its activities.

Now she has been fired, or she’s quit; I can’t tell.  All ties severed.  She’s playing the cool professional in a shtick I find irksome: “Let’s just say it was mutual consent and I wish them all the best.”  Okay, I said, but do you have confidence in the leadership?   Is there anything I need to know?  “Look, I’d rather not talk about  it,” she said.

For its part, the organization (I mean its current ED and the board chair) hasn’t been in contact with me lately the way it had been.  It’s the summer, I tell myself; they’ll get back in gear soon.  But maybe I too have been fired.

I still respect the outfit–what I know of it, its mission and accomplishments.  And I don’t think my friend will mind if I stay involved.  What does the correct semi-outsider do in these circumstances?

Signed, One Foot In

Dear Foot:

When a consultant mutters about mutual decisions and best wishes, the translation is ‘AVOID!  AVOID!  COMPLETE DISASTER AHEAD!”  If the organization has decided to let you alone, count it as one of your blessings.

Less glibly: the most likely reason a consultant would leave a paying gig is that she discovered something improper or unethical, pointed it out as something that needed cleaning up, and encountered a stone wall.  Whether it’s mis-, mal- or non-feasance, it’s not something a professional wants to be anywhere near.  Nor is it something you would want to be involved in as a Board member.

Could you join the Board and turn it around?  Maybe.  But as a newcomer, and without your inside contact, you’d have less leverage in insisting on a clean-up of whatever needs cleaning up, and/or bringing in new blood (in the form of other new Board members) to wash the infection away.

What might be the problem?  The list is long, but with start-ups one common difficulty is that they’re not actually charities at all.  Perhaps they’re secretly profit-making entities for the founding Board; perhaps they’re tax shelters.  But not every organization that gets a preliminary ruling from the IRS should actually be considered a tax-exempt charity, and your friend might have discovered this sort of foundational issue.

Practically the least serious reason for a consultant to walk is that she hasn’t been paid.  But if this is the kind of organization that doesn’t pay its bills, again, I think you should count yourself lucky if it’s passing you by.

If you’re determined, though, to make this your experience of Board service, there’s no reason for you to be shy: after all, you’re a volunteer offering your services, not a supplicant begging for a job.  Pick up the phone and call the Executive Director and say, “I’d gathered you were recruiting me for the Board: was that correct?  I’m still interested in serving.”  No point in beating around the bush: listen to her answer, and if she’s at all evasive or indefinite about when she might want your services, then you’ll know it’s time to walk away.

It’s frustrating to have invested time in an agency with the expectation of being promoted to the Board, and then have that expectation frustrated.  But better that than the long-term frustration of serving on the Board of an agency whose integrity is in serious question.


*Apologies to Stevie Wonder.


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One Response to “Dear Nonprofiteer, What happened to the agency we knew, yester-me, yester-you, yester-day?*”

  1. Tom Cannon Says:

    Dear Ms. One Foot In,
    As a scarred former city manager and development director, you need to know that sometimes the best job you ever had is the one you never got. There are plenty of good nonprofits out there. Find one whose integrity matches their rhetoric, and don’t look back.

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