Archive for the ‘Succession planning’ Category

Dear Nonprofiteer, If I’m not supposed to know about it, how can I complain about it?

October 29, 2012
Dear Nonprofiteer:My wife is the development director for a nonprofit animal welfare organization. I am a dues-paying member of the group, which entitles me to a vote, and to have input at group meetings.

Is it improper for me to express my concern to the board members about policies and practices I have a problem with? My wife has asked me not to, and I understand why.

Last year, I was chairman of the group’s nominations committee. We were charged with recruiting and vetting potential candidates for our board of directors. The application process involved assessing the candidate’s background, skills, network and, not to put too fine a point on it, access to people with deep pockets. This year, the chair of the board made a decision on her own to revise the board member application so that it more closely resembled the application our prospective volunteers fill out. I also have a problem with the fact that all the nomination committee members this year are also board members. I’m not saying that our present board is completely dysfunctional, but even so, I would think that if even if a partially dysfunctional board is picking out its own replacements, that’s like perpetuating the problem.

There are other problems I have with the group, but those two are ones I feel strongly about. The problem is that I wouldn’t know this information except through my wife, because board meetings are not open to the general membership. Even employees aren’t allowed to attend unless they are invited or ask for (and are granted) a spot on the agenda. That’s another thing I have a problem with.

What is my recourse?

Signed, On the Outside Looking In
Dear Outside:
The real question is, what recourse do members have when the Board of Directors is leading the organization in a manner unsatisfactory to its members?  And that in turn is dependent on the group’s bylaws.  From what you’ve reported, the Nonprofiteer gathers that the organization is Board-governed rather than member-governed, meaning that members have very little power.  You say you have “a vote . . . and input at group meetings;” but it seems that votes at group meetings aren’t binding on the Board of Directors, which holds the real power.
But even if the group can overrule the Board of Directors, you’re only one member of the group.  Your “recourse,” such as it is, is to persuade your fellow members that something is rotten on the Board, and secure a group resolution (binding or not) proposing that the Board Nominating Committee include members who are not on the Board and/or that the Board members’ job description be revised to emphasize the need to give and raise funds.
But you say you wouldn’t know about the membership of the Board Nominating Committee, or the revision of the Board members’ job description, except through your wife.  That strikes the Nonprofiteer as bizarre: neither of these things can be considered confidential.  So you’re well within your rights, as a member of the group, to say to other group members, “We don’t even know who’s on the Nominating Committee, or what they’re looking for—how come?” and to petition the Board to release this information.  That way you’re asking a question that any group member would ask—“Who’s being recruited to the Board, to do what, and by whom?”—and not breaching the confidentiality of Board-meeting conversation.
On your general point: most nonprofit Boards are self-renewing, recruiting new members through a committee of old members.  It’s a best practice to have the Nominating Committee chaired by someone who’s leaving the Board rather than someone who’s staying on it, and it’s probably also a good idea to have the Nominating Committee include representation of the organization’s various constituencies (including, in your case, the group); but there’s nothing suspicious or untoward about an all-Board Board Nominating Committee.
In sum: don’t express your opinions to Board members, particularly concerning things you’re not supposed to know.  DO express your opinions to fellow group members, and if you’d like to know who’s on the Board Nominating Committee and what they’re looking for, secure a group resolution to that effect and have it presented to the Board as an inquiry by the collective.
In other words: don’t embarrass your wife.  Her income is at stake.

Dear Nonprofiteer, Who’s really to blame for bogus job descriptions and pathetic salaries?

April 5, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I was hoping you might be willing to follow up on your last post on your blog because I felt it was incredibly powerful. I hope it is being reblogged and reposted as much as it should.

What does a professional do when they see a job that sounds amazing but the salary is lowballed? Do you address it in a cover letter, if they gave an insultingly low number outright in the job description? What about when it sounds great and you get an interview and they make an offer and it is $15K less than what’s in line with the position? I know anyone can just simply decline, which I’ve done myself.

But I feel like leaders in the sector have a duty to say something, to help move towards realigning expectations of founders and staff who offer insultingly low pay, especially for organizations that offer critical services that honestly won’t select themselves out of the sector. What are your thoughts on this?

It doesn’t seem like we’re at a transparency point in the sector where we can say, “If you want the best candidate for the position you have to pay competitive wages, if you want the fourth or fifth best or most desperate candidate, you can get away with what you’re offering.”

Of course, I feel particularly stung after two painful lowball offers in the past four months that I’ve had to turn down, but that’s sort of beside the point. I never realized that this was such a pervasive problem. It seems especially bad in Chicago, for whatever reason, compared with my compatriots in DC, SF, and Seattle.

Sincerely, Looking at the Bigger Picture

Dear Looking,

The Nonprofiteer understands there to be two parts to your question.  The first is, “What is a professional to do when faced with an unacceptably low salary offer?”   The answer to this is that you have nothing to lose (but your chains) by responding—in person or in writing—“I realize you may not be as familiar with the nonprofit job market as I am, given that your agency only looks for an Executive Director once every many years; but the amount you’re offering isn’t suitable to the position you’ve described.  The range is more like [and then cite the minimum you’d accept and the maximum you can really envision].”  There are only two possible answers to this: “Well, we don’t have that kind of money and don’t intend to get it,” in which case you know you’re dealing with a Board of Directors you wouldn’t be able to manage anyway; or “Oh, really?  Well, is there any way we can make this work?” in which case you’re suddenly negotiating.

There’s no need to say, or even think, that an offer is insulting: if you can’t assume good faith on the part of agencies, at least recall that they derive no benefit from insulting prospective employees.  Though it feels otherwise, no one is commenting on your qualifications by offering you a low salary.  They’re simply hoping they can get someone great for cheap, which if you think about it is the entire nonprofit model.  So consider yourself someone whose first task is to educate your prospective employer about how things ought to work.  Again, if the employer is uninterested in that education, good riddance to bad rubbish; whereas if it’s interested, you may actually be able to get to ‘yes.’

But your second question is of much broader application: What would it take for the sector to begin to offer wages that are appropriate to the skill level being sought?  And the answer to that, as to most questions about how to fix nonprofits, is ‘more money and more understanding from big institutional funders.’  As long as foundations and social venture capitalists pound the drum for a strict ceiling on administrative expenses, nonprofits will continue to skimp on paying for talent.  The people with money are the thought leaders in the sector (isn’t that always the way?), and they’ve made it acceptable to answer reasonable salary demands with the enraging, “Well, no one goes into nonprofit work to get rich.”

Take a look at Watkins Uiberall’s excellent comparative compensation survey from 2010.  Though it’s from Tennessee and from two years ago, it will provide a basis for conversation about what’s appropriate for many jobs in the sector.  As data like these are spread (including by prospective employees), employers will come to understand the way things really work, vs. their fantasy of hiring President Obama for a community organizer’s stipend.

Nonprofit Boards, meanwhile, should consider the non-trivial possibility that shorting their employees on salary and benefits will ultimately lead to a unionization drive.  The Nonprofiteer is a union girl herself, but most Boards of Directors and nonprofit managers don’t agree.  So somewhere in any conversation about salaries one might gently slide in the question, “If your pay scale is so low, how do you avoid the unions?”  You won’t get an answer but you’ll be providing food for thought, and the longer employers chew on it the less chintzy they’ll be.

Dear Nonprofiteer, Why do nonprofits ask for the moon?

March 23, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am a nonprofit professional “in transition” otherwise known as job hunting.  In the course of my job search I have come across two  job postings that have left me incredulous and I was curious as to your opinion.
  1. An executive director position listed for $32K/year. Granted this was described as a half time gig but is there any such thing as a half time ED? Maybe it means you can take weekends off. The job description/requirements were just as detailed as any full time description.
  2. A director of development position for $20-25K.   Again this is listed as 3/4 time. It comes with a very detailed laundry list of expectations but again is this really a job that can be done well with less than full attention?

Something seems really off here. My gut (and review of their 990’s) tells me that these are marginal organizations to be avoided.  Do I seem unrealistically fussy in today’s job market?

Signed, Born At Night But Not Last Night

Dear Born:

You are not unrealistically fussy, especially when “today’s job market” in the nonprofit sector seems to include a number of jobs that are going begging for want of the right candidate.  And you’ve put your finger on why that should be the case: because the job descriptions (and presumably the jobs that accompany them) are a pile of unrealistic expectations held together with the glue of employer entitlement.  This glue is particularly thick in the nonprofit sector, where hiring managers presume that their poverty entitles them to your services for less than they’re worth.  But, as the workplace sign has it, Bad planning on your part doesn’t necessarily constitute an emergency on my part.

And you’ve identified a favorite gambit of those self-entitled managers/agencies: pretending that a full-time job can be done part-time because they know the proposed salary is an insult.  (For what it’s worth, the Nonprofiteer was paid $25K as an Executive Director of a small organization in 1987; if salaries haven’t increased 20% in the past 25 years, they should have!)  As you say, it is virtually impossible for anyone to be a part-time Executive Director, and the length of the list of responsibilities demonstrates that the agency knows this as well as you do.  You could do it simply by specifying the number of hours you’re prepared to work (e.g., 30), but sure as death and taxes would come a grant application deadline which must be met, and your self-imposed part-time-ness (part-time-itude?) would go out the window.

The Nonprofiteer just had occasion to help a client work on a job description for a part-time professional position. The original description had two problems.  First, it specified more than 40 hours’ worth of work for a 20-hour position.  Second, its qualifications included both items that couldn’t be expected from someone willing to work part-time for $20 an hour (such as a roster of contacts in high-profile media) and items that shouldn’t be expected from a professional (such as facility with word processing programs).  If you’re hiring a professional, don’t ask for secretarial skills.  And if you’re hiring a professional, be reasonable about how much professional service you can get for $20 an hour and/or 20 hours per week.

By contrast, another client has recently shifted its budgeting from “How much can we spend based on how much we raised last year?” to “How much do we need to raise to support what we need to do?”  Moreover, one of the things the agency realized it needed to do was steadily increase the salary of the Executive Director so that when the current martyr departs, the group will be in a position to offer a living wage to the next group of candidates.

(Consider, by the way, that the people offering such meager salaries are Board members who probably chafe at being asked to give $1000 a year.  They don’t hesitate, though, to ask you to forego $25,000 or so of income.  This is why the Nonprofiteer doesn’t advocate asking staff members to donate to their agencies: they’re already doing so at a level no other donor is likely to match.)

(Consider also that the sums offered make clear that the agencies are expecting women, and only women, to apply for these jobs.  No one would dare offer such a pittance to a man.  The nonprofit sector operated for years on the unwaged labor of women, but there’s no reason we have to continue to provide this subsidy.)

Thus, your incredulity at the nerve of some agencies is perfectly well-founded.  That won’t help you get a job with them: but hey, why would you want to?  You’re a star, and you’ll find a place that won’t also ask for the moon.*


“Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”–Bette Davis to Paul Henreid, Now Voyager

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

January 25, 2012

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.

How not to handle succession in the arts

November 17, 2011

There could be worse ways to handle succession planning than the one chosen by the Miami City Ballet, but it would be hard to think of one. The Board of Directors, concerned that the ballet company would collapse when its famous artistic director Edward Villella retired, decided to test its own theory by forcing him out before he was ready to leave. Some Board members blame the outcome on Mr. Villella, who apparently refused to greet several of them at the company’s gala; but it’s hard to blame him when one of them called a meeting with him for the purpose of handing him a book on succession planning.

The Times article reaches for the classic suits-versus-artists narrative, saying that Villella’s ouster reflected the Board’s determination to place business stability above artistic product; but that’s unfair. The Board is responsible for the continued health of the company, and a failure to consider new leadership when the current leader is 75 would be a dereliction of duty. But what we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

As Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre Board learned back in 2000, you don’t call in the company’s artistic engine and hand him his walking papers–or even the sort of broad hint contained in the gift of a book about succession planning. You’re talking to someone about his life’s work and his passion, and you can’t talk to him as if he were a CEO who had been recompensed all these years in cash and expected to be recompensed the same way in retirement. An artistic director who is compelled to retire–and yes, indeed, some of them need to be–has to be offered a form of compensation congruent with what he’s been receiving up until now, something involving artistic control–even if it’s only the control inherent in leading the search for his own successor.

And even if the artistic director’s retirement creates the opportunity for the Board to step into its proper role of leadership–say, supervising the managing director instead of having the artistic director do so–that’s an opportunity to be pursued once the new artistic director begins. From the Board’s standpoint, having the managing and artistic directors report co-equally is a way to lighten the artistic director’s load while assuring that the Board itself receives comprehensive information. But from the standpoint of the incumbent artistic director, it’s a slap in the face, and suggests that the Board wants to interpose a business person (and a businessperson’s veto) between the artist and his vision.

Of course the Board IS the boss of the company, including the artistic director. But the most effective bosses wear their power lightly, in cooperation rather than conflict with the artists they mean to be serving. By this measure, the Board of the Miami City Ballet just fell on its face.

A word to wise arts Boards everywhere.