The Board Just Fired Me . . . and I'm the Founder!

We usually don't publish First Person Nonprofit articles anonymously. But in this case we know the individual and corroborated the key points of her story, and we understand why she has asked that her name not be published.

Four weeks and five days ago from this moment -- at 4 pm on a May afternoon -- I was fired. That morning the board chair told me our afternoon meeting would not be a finance committee meeting after all, but, rather, "about your future with the organization." The meeting lasted, at the most, 6 minutes.

"We would like you to resign," the board chair said.

"I have already submitted my resignation," I replied. Three weeks ago I had told the board I would be leaving in November. We were about to embark on a strategic planning process, and our big conference -- the one I created 11 years ago -- would be in the fall. That seemed like a fitting exit point.

"It's not acceptable to wait until November," he said. "We are terminating you effective immediately. Please turn in your keys and key card right now."

I was furious, white hot mad. I narrowed my eyes and "did a Harold" (my father's name was Harold).

He went on to tell me that I was not to go to the office to pick up my personal items unless a member of the board was present, and he would let me know who on the board to contact for that purpose.

And that was it.

I'm still furious. I'm mad at all the board members. I'm pissed at the new board members that I recruited because they didn't stop it. I'm mad at the old guard for being so sanctimonious. They don't have a clue. I'm angry because I should have been treated better and there's nothing I can do about it. And that's NOT FAIR.

Since the morning call had been pretty clear about the purpose of the meeting, I had had a few hours to prepare. I told each staff member that I might be fired that afternoon. We had a fantastic team of five at the organization, and I believed it was important for them to know what might be coming down the road.

After my meeting with the board chair, I went back to the office to tell the staff what had happened. The door was locked, although everyone's cars were still in the lot. There was no answer to my knock. I was struck with a huge, hurt fear that they were sitting in there having been told not to let me in. I later learned that, at the same time I was meeting with the two officers who fired me, another group of board members had gone to the office and taken everyone across the street to a coffee shop to tell them what was happening.

So I went home. I cried. I slept.

The next day a friend forwarded an email to me that had been sent to everyone on our distribution list -- about 2,500 people. It started like this: "Effective immediately, ____ is no longer the Executive Director of ____. Our organization is in trouble and the most significant issues relate to our finances."

Should have seen the signs

I should have seen the signs. But I didn't. Looking back now, I can pinpoint when the shift in board personality began: about 6 years ago. There was an evolution of the board from a group of enthusiastic, flexible individuals to a collection of people who engage in inwardly-focused groupthink. They were unwilling to engage in any sort of healthy debate. They consistently ignored the financial warning signs I pointed out, and they flat-out saw only limited responsibility for themselves to be fundraisers.

Nearly three years ago I missed another piece of evidence. A long time board member remarked that boards should have executive sessions at every meeting -- without the CEO. And so they did.

Most important, they did not seem to grasp the fact that our mission required a mix of charitable and earned income. They believed that if we could just figure out the right business model we could survive on earned income alone.

The result? When they finally paid attention to the financial situation of the organization, they panicked.

Puzzling silence

I had been talking about leaving off and on for several years. The board had complained that I hadn't given them a date. So I gave them a date.

When I gave my resignation I did it by letter to each of the board members. I had given them a resignation date of November 30. And I got no response to the letter, no response whatsoever. I sent an email to my board chair and said I haven't heard from you, I'd like to talk, and he never responded. I really didn't get it.

In fact, I never talked to the board after my resignation letter. A week after I sent them the letter, I sent an email asking for a special board meeting to discuss the current financial crunch. We on the staff had decided we would all take a 20% pay cut for a limited period of time, maybe three or four months. In our organization if you cut a staff member you cut income, so we couldn't solve the financial problem just by laying people off.

At the special board meeting no one mentioned my resignation. The next week they fired me. It was a unanimous vote.

Advice to other founders

This is every founder's nightmare. My advice: first, don't ever shortchange the time you spend with your board members. Build really good relationships with them.

And recruit for personality. My board would be perfect for a large foundation but it's the wrong board for a small entrepreneurial nonprofit. I admit that I had a big role in recruiting. Why did I recruit them? Because I didn't know what I was doing. They have no spine.

They chose to be unengaged and I let them do it. The finance committee did meet every month and we went over the finances in painful detail. This group of people didn't want to spend the time to be good board members. They were just interested in the once-a-month meeting.

I've changed my mind about being a voting member of the board. They couldn't have met without me if I had been a voting member. The dynamic was that they had all the power and I had none.

Now

I put in an unemployment claim and they didn't fight it, so at least I'm collecting unemployment. I'm trying to build a consulting business at the same time I look for a real job. The staff threw me a party and the board was not invited. It was a very nice party. But there is still one sore point. One of the staff has been there five years and we were really close. But we haven't talked about this, and I don't know how to close things out with her.

Thank you for sharing this story.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Comments (114)

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this response. I, like the author of the piece, was a founder and was fired. The twist to my story however, was that I had a business partner who orchestrated my termination. I was clueless until she personally delivered the letter of termination to my home one evening. I was out of work a year and a half. Moved out of state to accept an executive director position and darn, if it didn't happen again. I was with the organization 8 months only to have a volunteer meet secretly with the board of directors and convince them that he was a better fit. I was fired and he was in the position the very next day. I'm back looking for work....it's a shame that nonprofit organizations can forget that their missions are charitable!

    Jun 16, 2011
  • Anonymous

    As a founder and board member, I could see the handwriting on the wall after we hired our first full-time ED. For years, I was unable to get anyone else on the Board to do anything, attend committee meetings, etc. For years they asked me to do just about everything the Board was supposed to be doing, and like a fool I did it. After the ED started, they started treating me like I was the problem, so I resigned "happily" and left. After that, when they began asking for my help, I said "no". Two years later they fired their wonderful ED. With time I have come to realize that I recruited them and I enabled them to not do their job and so I caused my own downfall. The person who wrote this article will have to come to the same painful conclusion, but right now it is all pain. And, it is unfair.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • In terms of the firing, I think Elenor and others are exactly right, the board showed very poor form in the manner of the dismissal and I would be very surprised if it doesn't reverberate negatively across their community for some time to come. As a consultant with a practice serving as Interim Executive Director for nonprofits in the DC area (and, by the way, I take serious issue with consulting not being "a real job"!) I have observed a pattern that often results in an unhappy departure of the ED. 1. First a new ED is hired, everyone's happy, and the board begins to disengage as the ED takes charge. 2. For a few years all goes well, with the same board who hired the ED remaining, and the ED rightly begins to adjust the organization to his/her vision. Meaningful communication with the board decreases because both sides deem it unnecessary. 3. As the ED makes more and more important decisions with the board serving only as rubber stamp, new board members begin to replace those who hired him/her. A crisis may arise or a mistake may be made resulting in the board taking a harder look at the organization and the ED's performance. 4. When this occurs the ED, who is used to autonomy, feels threatened. That heightens the board's suspicions and desire to micromanage. Because the two parties lack experience in healthy communication (think of a bad marriage...) differences are unresolved. 5. Eventually this leads to a parting of the ways (but hopefully done with maturity, understanding and the well-being of the nonprofit in mind, unlike the present case). As evidence of this I am constantly amazed at how few boards conduct regular, meaningful evaluations of their EDs - no wonder miscommunication is a problem. Katherine Morrison Morrison Nonprofit Transitions

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    My founding CEO dismissal is different. I was allowed to pick a resignation date, was given a generous severance package in recognition of my years of service and have maintained excellent relationships with some of the staff and some of the board. It was still painful, but I emerged with my dignity intact. What happened? The board was too big and cliques formed. A group of people who were very effective at bringing in money wanted to control how the organization was run. I thought they were usurping many of my roles and overstepping their bounds as board members. Each side's concerns had merit (theirs and mine). Sometimes it's just time to move on. After grieving for the job I loved with an organization I nurtured, I have moved on to a similar job with a smaller, more loving board. I communicate with them constantly so that we all know we're on the same page. This is another start-up and I'm learning from the past while enjoying the present immensely.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Blue Avocado - just curious, who did you "corroborat(ed) the key points of her story" with? And why not present more than one side if you went through that effort? Clearly, there is much more to the story and it really doesn't seem very educational or instructive to present only one heated side. Help us all learn here, if that's what you aim to do.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • We checked on the key facts by contacting other people who were not aware we were asking as part of an article. And the reason we didn't add the "other side" is that this is a First Person Nonprofit story and not one of our journalistic pieces. When we do a journalism article (like the one on the Vanguard Foundation) we present as many sides as we can find. We believe there is a different, unique value to First Person Nonprofit stories, and we want to let the writers' perspectives come through as clearly as possible. And such stories are part of our ethos: a group of people becomes a community by sitting around the campfire and telling stories about themselves. Thanks for the question, Jan

    Jun 08, 2011
  • While a few respondents have suggested this first-person piece was not instructive, the extensive and well-framed responses certainly are! What a great way to get at the issue of fiduciary responsibility, relationship management, board development, personnel management, internal and external communication, and the founder-board dynamic. - Sean

    Jun 10, 2011
  • Anonymous

    as one earlier responder said - bingo!

    Jul 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    +1 to both Jan and Sean. There are extremely helpful lessons and insights to be learned here.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    The worst part in my mind was the email the board blasted that at best disrespected the outgoing ED and at worst disparaged her reputation. That was unprofessional and - more importantly - damaging to the organization. The board is by law required to protect and promote the organization, not damage it. Funders, donors, clients, and customers do not want to see the dirty laundry made public. Also by law, the board is responsible for the financial well-being of the group. If they had not spoken to the ED before and formally warned her of their concerns, with instructions on how they wanted her to proceed, then the board was out of line blaming her for the financial problems. Yes, sometimes Founder's Syndrome kicks in and the founder should move on for the good of the group. However, for the good of the group, the transition can always be handled in a smarter and more thoughtful manner by all parties.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Well put.

    Jun 09, 2011
  • Anonymous

    There was a recent case involving mass negative emailing. I believe the offended party won a nice lawsuit for defamation.

    Jun 10, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Interesting story and comments. However, some points have been missed: 1. The Board is responsible for evaluating the ED on a yearly basis. The Board Chair is responsible for oversight of the ED on an on-going basis. Does not seem that this ever happened. 2. The Board also should do a self evaluation regarding their functioning on a regular basis. 3. The ED along with the Board is responsible for Board development - i.e. helping the Board understand their role (vs the staff roles) and their responsibilities (financial oversight, making sure the organization is following the laws re employment, non-profit status etc., representing the organization to the community). Overall it seems that the ED stayed on too long and set up a negative situation when she kept telling the Board that she was leaving, but did not set a firm timeline and date and transition plan. Do not say you are leaving unless you are prepared to act soon on that statement. In addition, the Board owned her an explanation for her termination--maybe they gave it and it was left out. I would like to hear form the Board on this one. However, unless some things change it seems that this organization is in serious trouble. I hope they get some help.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Reading the comments on this article is just as interesting as the article itself. Many of you have echoed my thoughts so I won't repeat them here, but for those of you who are throwing your hands up at how the Board/ED relationship can never work (contract term limits for EDs, sweeping disappointment in the sector) I remind you that this is one example from 1.5 million nonprofits across the country. I have been an ED of my organization for 4 years, and I have an excellent relationship with my Board. There are struggles from time to time, as well as great moments of satisfaction. The Board/ED relationship is human, and as such is complicated and sometimes unpredictable. I know plenty of EDs who have been with their organizations for decades doing amazing work for their communities, having survived many waves of turmoil and success. This in an interesting case study, but please keep this one story in perspective.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I've heard enough horror stories of great ED's being driven away or fired by incompetent boards to believe it is fairly common. I have been an ED for 20 years, and worked with many boards, but it wasn't until last year that I had a board nearly destroy the organization, acting with the best of intentions of course. I think the model of nonprofit governance is designed to fail as much as succeed. It is too much to expect volunteer, inexperienced board members to know how or have the time or ability to oversee an organization, especially in smaller communities where the pool of board members is limited, and especially when the organization runs into trouble (often created by the board, e.g. failure to fundraise, etc.). Perhaps I'm jaded, but I don't understand why it is acceptable to allow (nay, invite) people who may know little to nothing about the field in which the organization works or the history of the organization to come in as a board member and whether through incompetence or pettiness or whatever destroy the work of many people over many years, and not just the work but the livelihoods. I have known good board members and bad, but none has had nearly the investment in the survival and well-being of the organization as the staff, especially the ED.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I don't believe it is acceptable to invite people onto the board that know little to nothing about the nonprofit sector, little to nothing about the organization, and little to nothing about the mission. Every board member should bring something to the table that further enhances the success of the agency. You shouldn't be recruiting a bunch of inexperienced board members that don't know anything about what they are doing any more than you should be hiring inexperienced staff members that don't know what they are doing. Also, in general I think there is very little board training at most organizations. Part of the reason why the boards don't know anything about the organization is because no one bothers to sit down with the new members and talk to them about the history of the agency. If you have someone serving on a board for the first time, either the ED or some other board member should spend quite a bit of time with the new board member explaining to them about the nonprofit sector and their roles and responsibilities as board members. Before someone becomes a board member someone should explain to them their role in the fundraising process. Too often we just recruit a board member because they have a big name in the community and never bother to really explain the responsibilities of being a board member before we sign them up or give them the proper training to succeed. If you have a completely unqualified board that doesn't know what they are doing, you should take a serious look at your process of recruiting and training board members.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • On recruiting for the board: I have been a board member and staff member for nonprofits for 25 years, sometimes sequentially for the same organization. I think it is interesting that no-one has mentioned asking the Board to recruit Board members -- this has actually been the usual pattern in the nonprofits I've known, maybe because many were small and had minimal paid staff if any. To have the ED the primary recruiter for the Board does mean that if the ED is not a good or thoughtful recruiter, the Board may be ineffective or otherwise inadequate for the job. In the nonprofit I currently work for, the Board is recruited by the ED (who suggests candidates to the Board) and also by a Board nominating committee. In addition, the nominating committee is responsible for orienting the new Board members and each Board member is assigned a "Board buddy" who has a longer history with the organization. The Board has also recently set a policy that when possible, a potential Board member should be asked to serve on a Board subcommittee, such as fundraising, which also includes non-Board members from the community. That allows a mutual evaluation period to determine if the person would fit well on the Board and is willing to serve the organization in that capacity. Our current ED began as an off-board committee member, moved to the Board, then Board president, and finally to ED when we were able to expand to that level of paid staff. Leslie

    Jun 10, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Will there be a similarly one-sided (and anonymously written) story in the next edition entitled "We, the Board, Fired our ED and Founder"? This ED recruited new board members and is "pissed" that they didn't side with her. Perhaps they, upon joining the board, realized what a wreck the NP was and were willing to put aside that personal relationship for the betterment of the NP. Clearly there's a large part of this story that hasn't been told, despite the "key facts being checked". For the record, I've been fired, too. I was, like this author, an angry, misunderstood, unappreciated victim of mean and nasty people who were out to get me. My termination was entirely baseless and had nothing to do with mistakes I'd made or the fact that I fit in about as well as a fish with a group of monkeys.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • I would very much like to publish a First Person Nonprofit story from a board member who participated in the firing of a founding executive director. If you are such a person, please send a note and your contact info by clicking here. Thank you! Jan

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I'm writing this quite a while after the original article, but I have to say that I had no sympathy whatsoever for the ED, who appeared to have a hide as thick as a buffalo. It was obvious that this board had for a very long time been unhappy with the ED's performance and was delighted to get the letter of resignation. Their mistake was in letting the ED drag things out. I am currently on a board that is trying to figure out how to fire the (founding) ED because he is unprofessional in his public behavior, including being rude to donors, volunteers, and board members -- he does things such as foist details of his private life and financial troubles on them. He has been cautioned (in writing) after several embarrassing incidents. I wonder if issues like this were in play? Just like the story writer, our ED perceives his board as a bunch of uptight bean counters (I loved the finance committee going over the finances in detail being a problem for your ED author!) who don't "love" the organization the way the founder does. Sometimes an organization needs to be rescued from its founder.

    Nov 07, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Clearly this story hits a nerve with many of us working in the non-profit community... either as an ED or as a Board member. I am a past-Board Chair who has been involved in hiring, evaluating, and managing a "founding ED". I have also served on other non-profit Boards. Through these experiences, I have learned that the relationship between its governing Board and ED is fundamental to its operating effectiveness. In this case, it sounds like there was a break-down in this relationship and each side was operating independently. An ED cannot guide an organization to success without the support of the Board. To build support, you need to recruit Board members who bring not only appropriate experience to the table but also a commitment to the organization and its vision. You also need to activity build a working relationship. This doesn't happen at monthly or less frequent board meetings alone, and it certainly doesn't happen with communication limited to e-mails and a letter. One-on-one engagement is essential to relationship building. A Board has the responsibility not only to provide oversight to the organization, but also to ensure that the ED and staff are provided with appropriate support and direction to achieve their objectives. If the Board doesn't have the interest or commitment to fully engage in the issues at hand (such as the Finance committee in this case), then they are doing a disservice to the organization. It is their responsibility to recruit and develop fellow Board members who bring appropriate experience to the table and a commitment to the organization and its vision. I've seen effective Boards and disfunctional Boards. Ultimately, these situations break-down when the ED and the Board stop working together as a team. This appears sadly to be the case here. The "firing" should never come as a surprise. If there was a disconnect in performance versus expectations, then that discussion should have happened a long time before and an action plan provided. This is to the benefit of both the organization and the individual. That said, when the Board received the resignation letter, it was appropriate for them to evaluate what is best for the organization and act on it. It's not surprising that they would decide not to drag out the founder's departure, as an extended transition can hold the organization back from making necessary change. We don't have this side of the picture. so we have to respect that they took the course of action they felt was in the best interests of the organization. It's unfortunate, however, that they chose to communicate this change in a negative way. I hope the Board uses this as an opportunity to rebuild their infrastructure - both at a staff level and within the Board. I hope the founder uses this as an opportunity to grow and focus more on relationship-building in their next position.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I have had a similar experience where the balance of the Board became controlled by a dominating individual (that I unfortunately had recruited), and I was forced out. The warning signs were there, but being my first non-profit job, I was oblivious. In retrospect, I see my part in the situation and try to do things very differently in my current position. This does not however, change their responsibility for their part - both the "dominant" individual and the members who did not have the courage to oppose him. Irregardless of the details of this situation - the way the dismissal was handled was awful. The ensuing email even worse. It certainly has negatively effected my view of the organization.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    The headline of this article suggests the Founder is entitled to special treatment. That should not be the case. Founders often stay too long and expect to be appreciated for having started the group. Yes, this situation seems to have been handled badly, and blame can probably be assigned to both sides. But there is nothing wrong with firing an Executive Director. Having been the Founder of the group should be irrelevant.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Over years of experience and a couple of similar experiences, I learned that the two individuals involved in my "resignation" were power hungry women who wanted my job, and in fact took it for the short run. When that wasn't working for them/agency they soon became disinfranchised, as well. LET THIS BE A HARD LESSON TO ALL OF US WORKAHOLICS & MYRTERS FOR THE "CAUSE". Every single one of us is DISPENSIBLE. We can all be replaced in a heart beat. The new Board member on a climb to stardom, or a vendetta for some unknown reason. Study, learn, and do your job to the best of your ability. Embrace lovingly everyone you work with, board and staff, and the shining star of light will be with you. If not.........don't let it get you down. GET A LIFE NOW. Don't wait until you are asked to leave. Don't make your agency you LIFE. Have friends, do exciting things, personally, and don't live your life for or through your agency. In the end nowbody will remember us anyway. Just know in your heart you have made the difference in probably thousands of lives, and that is what is important anyway.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Great points! I learned this the hard way.... although I wasn't fired and left voluntarily, I left because I felt the board did not appreciate all my hard work and sacrifice. I've learned that it's often "what did you do for me today" when dealing with boards -- they forget that you worked around the clock to finish the grant that brought in $100K six months ago or that you spent months designing new programs or services that now bring in new revenue. Boards are volunteers who -- no matter how committed to the agency -- have other lives and do not eat, drink and sleep the organziation. They do not "see" the workaday world at your agency. They see the serene duck on the surface of the water, not its orange feet paddling as fast as they can. Nor is it their role to see or be the duck's feet. Yoga helps....

    Jul 26, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I think this board was brave and probably correct in its actions. None of us know what happened. However, they may have felt that this was the best way to handle it, to avoid nasty, back-biting and other horrible outcomes. Having worked with 3 founder organizations, and having spoken with others who have been involved with founder orgs, I can say that most founders don't know when to leave. They are not reflective about their skills and capabilities and they do not accept guidance from the board or professional level staff. We don't know if that's the case here, but I'd bet money on it. Over 90% of founder charities fail to transition to professionally run organizations. This board may well have given this organization a fighting chance to survive and continue to fulfill its mission. Time will tell.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Having worked for several founder organizations, I know there can be lots of problem with control (that we can call founder's syndrome.) That being said, and acknowledging that many founders may lack capacities to grow organizations to the next level, I would like to see this founder--and the others--given credit for FOUNDING and probably pouring her life blood into the organization. She probably cares passionately about the cause and it is not just a job to her, but a way of life. The organization is her baby, and even if it is time for the baby to grow up and develop wings without her, she should be respected as the founder. The resignation letter should have been acknowledged, and if the board had to move up the date, they should have had a conversation with her. Founders can be difficult to work with, but without them none of us would be working in the nonprofit sector because the organizations wouldn't exist.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I agree with all the posters about how poorly it was handled. Awkward and unpleasant situations tend to bring out the worst in people esp. volunteers with no HR experience. I will say though with my 15 years as an ED, I have felt the financial stability of the organization is my lookout. It is MY job to lose. Directors go home to their families, jobs. I live here. I would hope that I would have done something versus living with it as her comment: "They consistently ignored the financial warning signs I pointed out, and they flat-out saw only limited responsibility for themselves to be fundraisers." And if she could not, then quit (but with another job lined up!).

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I hope everyone who reads this sees that this is one person's perspective of a difficult situation. This may not be a view of all the facts. As readers, we don't know what the board really did, what they were struggling with, or their work in the relationship or trying to sustain an organization. Nonprofits are allowed by the IRS to exist with tax exempt status to serve a community. The board exists to represent the community and they hire an executive director. A founding ED has had a role in visioning the need and building the organization. It does not entitle the ED to be manipulating the board composition to protect his/her job or any other of the problems I see in this story. It would be valuable if Blue Avacado would take the column and highlight the problems from a good practice standpoint. That message that was sent sounds like there was a crisis, and it sounds like there was a crisis. To have sent a message that everything was fine might not have been true. Sometimes situations get to a point where a clean break is required and people need to own their part of the story and move on for the sake of the organization and the community. Isn't that what this is all about?

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I agree. I would really have liked to hear an analysis of the problems from a good practice standpoint. Maybe in the next monthly newsletter?

    Jun 09, 2011
  • Anonymous

    The good practices are remarkably well articulated in the responses to this piece. What's great about the many responses is that they take a true story, with all of its one-sinded details, and flesh out what could and should have happened. There are plenty of good NPO governance publications out there to refer to, but without an opportunity to apply the principles it is easy to learn some issues the hard way.

    Jun 10, 2011
  • Anonymous

    So, what's the board side of the story?

    Jun 09, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Um -- being a consultant IS a real job . . .

    Jun 09, 2011
  • Anonymous

    My experience is definitely limited, but in my short experience I've noticed many Founders tend to continue to feel they are still running everything as they surely did when the organization was in its fledgling stages, even when other competent staff or board members are brought on board. Often there's a lack of communication; maybe the board or staff are intimidated by the Founder's expertise and sometimes iron hand? This account does sound a bit one-sided, and and I tend to get wary when a Founder talks about board recruitment strategy, as many Founders seem to prefer to select cheerleaders or big names instead of individuals willing to lead and work (and raise funds). I agree the firing was poorly handled, and the mass email was a horrible slap in the face. Perhaps in the future, if someone as a board member is in a similar situation, they could consult with whoever their local nonprofit experts for strategies to make the transition less painful for all? I hope Jan is successful in getting a glimpse or two into the board's side.

    Jun 09, 2011
  • Anonymous

    As a staff person just fired by a founder because I pushed for her to have more accountability-- more oversight by the board -- I find this topic very interesting. As many people have already said here, SOME founders see their organizations as their own sandbox to play in as they want. They founded it, so it is theirs. Board members are their friends, and there are few lines drawn between the professional and the personal. They may have brought a beautiful organization into the world, but this same power to create is balanced with the power to destroy if it grows beyond their control. Sometimes... not always... but sadly too often.

    Jun 09, 2011
  • Anonymous

    As a CEO of a government NP, I suggest you read this book which relates to Board personalities in all NPOs: Haugk, Kenneth C. Antagonists in the church: how to identify and deal with destructive conflict Minneapolis : Augsburg Pub. House,1988.

    Jun 10, 2011
  • Wow! So many responses, as others have said, clearly hit a nerve with Blue Avocado readers. I scanned the comments and saw many that echo the reaction I had - whose job is it to recruit board members? What about board training? How do the ED and Board work together to solve organizational problems? Why wasn't there a more "humane" exit strategy? Is there an inherent problem with the construct of nonprofit board governance - asking volunteers to do key executive work? The one comment I'd like to add, on top of these questions and related to Founder's Syndrome is that many nonprofit Founder's (or long tenured ED's) fail to realize this is not THEIR organization. By virtue of being a nonprofit, the organization BELONGS to the community and it is the board's responsibility to represent the community's interest in that organization and safeguard that the organization is around to meet the community's needs. If an ED/Founder wants to OWN the organization they should start a for-profit. We need more education about this in the nonprofit sector, especially to those starting up nonprofits, and more education to ED's and boards on how to make these critical transitions in leadership, which are necessary and inevitable, gracefully. --Judy Sharken Simon, MAP for Nonprofits

    Jun 10, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Aloha Judy Sharken Simon, *Your comment on the necessity of education to ED's/Boards, and I would add staff, is on point. *Wild Apricot offers very helpful services & training for small organizational needs..and gives a platform for automation of repetitive duties to fill in for absent staff &/or give overworked staff room to breathe. *http://managementhelp.org offers fairly complete free introductory information for those new to the nonprofit world *http://https://www.cfsarasota.org/OnlineClasses/tabid/544/Default.aspx is a good source for affordable Certificate in NP Management (can be done by course or as a package) *Tho there are many online training programs/certification programs now available, these 2 come to mind immediately. Totally agree that everybody at the core workings of a nonprofit organization needs to have the curiosity, commitment, time to learn how to serve the community better, always. *All the best!

    Jun 23, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I agree with those who suggest that it's difficult to assess this situation without hearing the board's side of things. This is definitely a rant (witness language that you might use when unloading to a friend or spouse - not in something that's going to be published). I also take umbrage with the fact that this is anonymous. There really must be more to the situation if this founder is not willing to say what she needs to say publicly. Finally, I'm really offended by the comment about trying to do some consulting until a real job can be found. This kind of attitude is what gives consultants a bad name. I am a consultant who also lost a job I loved and decided to take the many skills I developed in that job and share them as a consultant. I have been successful and if the number of referrals I receive is an indication, I provide good value for my many repeat non-profit clients. Consulting is not something you do until something better comes along. Perhaps it's that kind of judgmental attitude that lost her the job in the first place.

    Jun 10, 2011
  • I just read the First Person story, feeling anger and sadness for that executive director. I am going through this scenario with a board now. The board abruptly fired two of four founder-staff of an organization without giving an explanation to the other founders and staff, and everyone has been grieving for the past year. The board then abruptly hired someone to replace the fired staff and her role has been unclear from the beginning, and has not cleared up despite her efforts to work with the board to create more clarity in her position.

    I was brought in by the board to coach this person because her style is at odds with the culture of the organization and she has really ticked off a number of staff and other stakeholders. My role has grown from trying to assist this person cope in this environment to coaching the board on governance.

    It seems the board is slowly coming around to the notion that they acted hastily a year ago when it fired the founders, hired a new staff person to take their place, become overly engaged in the organization's management, and failed to establish clear expectations. More important, board members are now acknowledging they made serious mistakes. I have encouraged them to come clean, and to learn from their mistakes, but to also focus on creating a better environment.

    Jun 10, 2011
  • Anonymous

    This has been a voyeuristic experience, the kind where you know you should look away, but somehow you cannot. Clearly there are lessons to be learned for all sides -- founder, board, staff and we readers -- but they are hard to extract from the cascading raw hurt in this piece. While I feel a certain human sympathy for this founder, many of her claims are questionable: The board has "no spine" -- really? It would be a good board for a "large foundation" -- what on earth does that mean? Its members are only interested in attending meetings? Harder still to imagine, in this busy world. By writing before time's balm can do its work, the author keeps us from finding the lessons of her experience and even from empathizing with her. Unfortunately, the responses to her premature piece may add to her pain. Since we are this far into an uncomfortable, shared experience, perhaps it would help all of us if she wrote about this experience again in a year, to see if her perspective has changed.

    Jun 10, 2011
  • Anonymous

    This is a very sad story. Regardless of what may have happended, everyone deserves dignity. I am sure that nonprofit would not have ever treated a client like that, but...maybe they would. Sad indeed!

    Jun 10, 2011
  • Anonymous

    This article is tough to read. It seems like perhaps the board AND the E.D. have a propensity to leave "emotional wakes" in their conversations. The board did not think through how to carry this out respectfully while providing dignity. The E.D, staff & community deserved a more graceful exit. Therefore they left a BIG wake. The E.D. seemed to not think through how uncomfortable it would be for her staff to be in the middle. She talked with them BEFORE the meeting and went to talk with them AFTER the meeting (but was denied access). I understand her need to process, but it seems to me like she was only thinking of her needs, and not her staff. If she was thinking of her staff she would have waited for them to contact her first and she would have collected her belongings off hours. This type of behavior seems to me to be "wake creating" behavior. I agree with an earlier comment - this is like watching an accident that you can't turn away from. I would like to hear the board's side of the story - so we E.D.'s can LEARN from this experience.

    Jun 10, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I have a problem with the comment that the ED has a propensity for drama. A founder should be expected to have a crazy emotional investment. If a board roughs the founder up, the founder should not be expected to handle the whole thing beautifully. We're all human. I had a situation where I needed to fire a founder. I recognized the huge potential for drama and did some careful planning to keep things as smooth as possible. It meant being sensitive to the founder's perspective. I think that's both smart for the organization and kind to the founder.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I cannot count the number of people who have told me that they "have their own non-profit." I once worked for an organization whose founder/executive director treated the organization as her personal bank account, with all its assets (staff, cash, etc.) dedicated to her personal fame and fortune. I was once the treasurer of an organization that fired our well-known executive director for financial mismanagement, and he still gets resume mileage and entre from his short tenure with our group twenty years ago. I myself decided not to return to my executive director job after maternity leave because the board met in secret during my leave, and presented me with a list of grievances (including my refusal to give them keys to the office and the client files) that I was supposed to address before returning from the leave to which I was legally entitled. We need a clear standard of nonprofit management which is NOT modeled on the private sector. It should reflect values (paying fair wages, 40 hour weeks, clear board responsibility and accountability, etc.) and there should be some legal (government!) oversight. Oh, and I would bet that there are far more women than men who have experienced unfair treatment by the boards of their agencies. Annual evaluations and fairly negotiated employment contracts need to become a standard in our sector.

    Jun 10, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I have been the founding board president of one organization and the founding ED of another, so this article and the commentary is especially poignant to me. I believe there are start-up people and management people and I'm clearly in the start-up division (although there may be some hybrids who can do both well). One of the things I grapple with, as a starter person, is trying to figure out the best time to move on- the signs and/or patterns if they exist. It would be interesting to me if others have experience or advice. I'd like to see my way to the door before I need to be escorted out as the initial writer experienced.

    Jun 13, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I work in a church. My specialty is taking churches that had considered closing into a living status. (At that point, they really need another). My problem board has a member that has taken to micromanaging. It is frustrating for me personally, and has led to many people deciding to avoid working with the "leaders". I'm trying to lift the sights (as a pastor, I get the pulpit) but the micromanager is hamstringing us. I've almost turned in my resignation several times, but feel it would be better for the church to be openly fired if it comes to that (as that would be a congregation's decision). My other church is expanding its mission, and the community college I also work at is booming.

    Jun 13, 2011
  • Anonymous

    It has been my experience that non-profits often have two types of leadership; founder-led, as executive director/president/CEO and board led. When a board is comprised of friends, supporters and believers in the founder and merely serves as a rubber-stamp to the initiatives of the founder, the organization is in a position to run into trouble and there are many very public high-profile examples of the consequences of this type of board. Only when a board carries out its fiduciary and other specified duties according to the best interest of the organization, will the organization succeed. Sometimes these duties require the difficult decision to remove the founder in order to preserve the integrity of the organization, as recently happened in our community. When the welfare of the organization and its ongoing purpose is more important than an individual's misguided choices, even if that individual is the founder, it is essential that the board members be committed to the organization and the fulfilllment of its board responsibilities.

    Jun 13, 2011
  • Anonymous

    This firing episode is all over this community - one of those towns with a sizeable population but a modest number of non-profits and truly talented board leaders. We're also all aware of the existence of her anonymous memoir here and the comment thread. As a person not involved in the organization or the board but watching for years from the perspective of the philanthropic class I've heard about how weak the organization was and how the ED was perceived: gruff, unpolished, abrupt and lacking in a professional smoothness. Not a soul I've spoken to about her or the organization has told me she was a superb human proxy for the organization and its mission. Repeatedly I hear, "The organization can be so much more. The ED is holding it back. They can forget about donors engaging or investing with her running the place." People have been wondering for years why she was not fired and a more suitable ED hired years ago. She does not inspire or bring confidence to the philanthropic class and local nonprofits often go to the city to the north for the same trainings this organization offered. Her agency is not a player to them in any way. The organization is near a major city and could have been a viable local alternative player to our larger more dominant city and it's offerings to the north. It never became that. Word on the street was the board members over the years were largely a group of people who were unwilling to challenge the ED founder's overbearing gruff personality. She claims they were "enthusiastic, flexible individuals." I suspect she could label them this way because they did not understand their need to govern by holding the ED to a demanding work plan with quantifiable measurable outcomes that constituted success. I also imagine that when anyone had the confidence to ask tough questions this ED reminded board members in ways large and small over and over that she was the founder! When dealing with a gruff difficult ED and without strong backing from board peers you just say, "Fuggedaboutit!" and term off as soon as you can. If this behavior profile was the case, by being this way it functions as an attempt to insulate oneself from accountability and performance. Without an understanding of how a board holds an ED accountable for performance the board would not have had the necessary tool to evaluate and confidently retain or dismiss some while ago. With board member changes and financial challenges the ED needed to confront and fix some years ago, (acknowledged in her article above), and in the face of the sudden revelation of the depth of the financial crisis, the existing group got some chutzpah and did the thing that needed to be done years ago. With this terrible economy, it may be too late. Apparently a group of community stakeholders will be assembling to discuss the viability of the organization going forward in the community. Many of us will be watching closely for the outcome.

    Jun 13, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Thank you for what seems like another perspective on this actual situation. I wondered what the author meant by she "narrowed her eyes and did a Harold" - it didn't sound good and I can only imagine what that means. Like many others I have found this to be a very engaging discussion with many lessons to learn from.

    Apr 18, 2013

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