Dear Nonprofiteer, Should I look before I leap, or not leap at all?

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I recently joined the board of directors of a small nonprofit (4 staff, $200k budget). Within a month of my joining, our executive director announced she would be leaving as her partner has a new job in another state. In addition, while she won’t move for a couple of months, presumably giving the board plenty of time to find a successor, she wants to study for the bar exam in the new state and requested to work half-time until she leaves.

There are a couple of complications (aren’t there always). I was approached by two board members about taking the ED position. I initially said no, but reconsidered and have let the board know of my interest. I have recused myself from any discussions of the search and said I would resign from the board if selected.

The current ED has said that one staff member is interested in the position as well. Since going part-time, the ED also said this same employee is fulfilling many of her duties, and requested a bonus for the employee equivalent to the 20 hours a week the ED is not working. She said he is, in effect, an interim executive director, and should be compensated. I and other board members doubt that the current person is actually doing the extra 20 hours a week, and/or doubt he can sustain it. (I was present for this discussion, but said nothing and abstained from the vote on his compensation).

I feel I cannot make many obvious suggestions to the board (like that we hire an outside interim ED, either full or part-time) without it appearing that I’m trying to better position myself for the job. It could appear that I don’t want a competitor to have the interim job for fear that it would give him an advantage. There is also the matter of whether I take the interim position. I can’t bring it up, of course, but what if someone else does?

I guess the big question is that having even expressed an interest in the ED job, should I resign until the search is complete and a new ED hired? That means I would stop all my board work for a period that could be months. And if I’m not selected, do I come back on the Board and pick up where things left off? Obviously I’m concerned about all the lost time on major initiatives. Having a half-time ED is bad enough. We don’t need to lose board members, too.

Signed, Conflicted

Dear Conflicted:

The short answer is “Yes.” If you’re going to be a candidate for Executive Director, you must resign from the Board of Directors–not if and when you’re selected, but right now. There is no other way the Board’s search committee can consider you without favoritism, or at least the appearance of it. And in a circumstance like the one you’ve described, in which a current member of the staff is interested in the Executive Director position himself, the appearance of fairness in the process is absolutely essential to the continued functioning of the organization.

Imagine the staff member’s spending the couple-three months minimum required for a search grumbling to his two remaining fellow employees about how unfair it is for you to compete with him for the favor of a group of your peers.  The effect on morale would be disastrous. And if you got the job under those circumstances, you would walk into a hornet’s nest: hostile employees, shame-faced Board members, and thus a host of troubles you don’t need while the agency is working on the new initiatives you mentioned.

You’re already experiencing the extent to which your Board duties and your hoped-for staff duties embroil you in conflict of interest, and it will only get worse. Either withdraw your name from consideration or submit your resignation to the Board chair–-today.

If you don’t get the job, the question of whether you can return to the Board of Directors is one to be decided by the Board of Directors, not including you. That is, you are rolling the dice that your erstwhile colleagues will want you to return after you’ve failed to impress them sufficiently to get the job. And even if they do, won’t you feel awkward under those circumstances? Won’t you be looking around the Board room wondering who voted against you, and why?

So the question becomes whether you in fact wish to become Executive Director enough to make a do-or-die fight for it, knowing that your relationship with the organization will most likely be at an end if you lose the fight. That’s up to you–you haven’t told the Nonprofiteer anything about your current professional situation but it’s presumably unsatisfying if the Executive Director post beckons so strongly–but consider the costs to the agency no matter what the outcome, and maybe think better of it.

If you do think better of it, and decide to remain on the Board, you could do two things that would strengthen the agency immeasurably: first, persuade your colleagues to hire an actual interim Executive Director, preferably someone who’s been trained in the particular tasks of that very difficult role and certainly someone who is not under any circumstances a candidate for the permanent job. A trained interim ED can make sure necessary initiatives move ahead, clear up any personnel issues that may have been festering under the ex-ED (such as, why is she so concerned about his getting a bonus? More favoritism, perhaps?), and relieve the time pressure the Board would otherwise feel while filling such an important spot. In most major cities the Executive Service Corps operates an interim ED training program and will be glad to provide you with the names of candidates. Choose one to spend between six months and a year guiding the agency while you and your Board colleagues figure out what you want in a new leader and how to go about finding it.

Second, whether or not you hire such an interim ED, persuade your Board colleagues not to confer that title on the candidate-staff member. The title makes him heir-presumptive, which if true means you won’t be conducting a thorough and genuine search and if false means you’ll have a justly disappointed employee in a position to do a lot of damage.

If you decide to pay the current ED only half her salary for working only half-time, fine; that has nothing to do with whether any- or everyone else on staff deserves extra compensation. It may be that their burdens are lightened rather than increased by having a less-engaged ED.  That may be why you distrust the ED’s claim about how hard this guy is working.

The Nonprofiteer doesn’t understand at all the concept of bonuses in the nonprofit world. If your Executive Director does a great job, reward her with a raise. If she does a lousy job, don’t. But bonuses are based on outcome metrics, and those are rarely a direct reflection of an ED’s skill. If you tell an ED you’ll give her a bonus if she puts on five concerts this year, she’ll make sure to do so–-whether or not they’re any good. Or if she expects a bonus for serving x number of clients, you can be sure that x clients will go through the agency’s doors; but whether they’ve been served is a whole ‘nother question. A Board which gives bonuses to nonprofit executives is mistaking what’s measurable for what’s valuable.

So, to recap: if you want to work for the agency, quit its Board to level the job-hunting playing field. Be prepared for the likelihood that you won’t be able to return. Consider whether you’d all be better off if instead you withdrew your name from contention and focused on helping to find someone else to provide the able leadership, both interim and permanent, the group requires and deserves.

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