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we know the individual and corroborated the key points of her story, and we understand why she has asked that her name not be published.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

    I went through something similar, and though I wouldn't have done exactly what this ED did, it sounds as though her board had similar problems to those I faced. In a nutshell, I started at an organization which had existed for years as a small, all-volunteer group; it had "landed" a monied board member who pledged funding to hire core staff and start professionalizing. I was the second hire after the ED, and worked first as development director and later as Associate ED (I have extensive prior experience as an ED). For six years, our board pretty much rubber-stamped staff recommendations, and we grew--we added programs and staff, I raised a ton of money (mostly project grants), and our public profile was building rapidly. We explicitly stated as our philosophy that we were risk-tolerant and entrepreneurial--that we wanted to take a big bite out of our mission instead of nibbling around the edges. The wheels came off the bus when the economy crashed. Funds we had already secured were frozen; private donations slowed to a trickle. And suddenly, the board was very, very hands-on. The ED had made a mistake--with full knowledge of the board--which made this challenge much worse. And because the board was mostly made up of sole-proprietor business leaders, their immediate impulse was to can the CEO. Which they did, in about the most awkward, staff-demoralizing and donor-panicking manner they possibly could have. The sheer lack of even basic management skills was pretty shocking. They asked me to stay on as interim director and keep the lights on while they did a search...but specifically told me that I was not welcome to apply. I learned later that this was because a donor and former member of the board was angry with me, believing that I had had something to do with the ED's mistake. I hadn't; I didn't even learn of it until months after it took place. Four months later, having not found any applicant with the qualifications they sought, the board decided to hire the board chair--who had none of these qualifications, and hadn't sought the job--as its new ED. He had never run a nonprofit before. I was laid off, in a similarly rude and incompetent manner to what had happened to the ED. In fact, I had to lead the board by the hand to develop a transition strategy to avoid panicking the organization's support base all over again. Since then, the organization has lost all of its most important technical and program management staff, including those who provide the qualifications that enabled them to tap the millions in grant funds I used to raise for them. And what I hear in the local community about the new ED is, "Well, he's a nice guy, but he has no idea of what he's doing." They're still alive, but they're really not doing much of anything of consequences...and they've now created a seamless little bubble of self-congratulation around themselves, where they story they tell about themselves is in sharp contrast to how far they have fallen into irrelevance. My point here is that there is an inherent problem with the way the nonprofit sector is structured in this country. When things are going well, boards tend to defer to staff, but when they aren't, board members go with what they know--and because the most desirable board members are typically in for-profit business and often don't know anything about the nonprofit sector and its differences, their impulses are completely wrong for nonprofit problem-solving. When things get tough and the natural human impulse to start pointing fingers enters the picture, the fact that it is those who are LEAST knowledgeable about the work of the organization--as opposed to the staff, who actually know what is going on and how things work--who are in the position of making life and death decisions that can kill or cripple good work. This is a basic structural flaw in the nature of the nonprofit sector, and one which has led me to decide, after 25 years, that I'm really not that interested in working for nonprofits any longer. This wasn't a relationship or communication issue--we had great communication with the board and a strong sense of board support until their sudden about-face. If there is one thing I would have done differently, it would have been to recruit seasoned nonprofit board members. We had attorneys, a retired judge, business leaders, scientists, a former elected official...a great, diverse mix of community leaders. But only one of them had done much board work before, and that killed us. That one person, btw, tried to organize to get me the ED job, and got about 2/3 of the board to agree...but none on the recruitment committee, so that was all she wrote. I hear these stories over and over in the nonprofit community. Boards are more often than not more of a problem than a help. Reform of this system would be a very good idea.

    Jun 14, 2011
  • Anonymous

    You expressed my sentiments exactly. After 30 years in the non-profit realm I was blind-sided. The deceit of the BOD was so awful I had to resign to save my sanity. I transitioned out over a 6 month period to make sure that the organization I started 16 years earlier survived the transition financially and that its reputation remained strong. I too think there are basic flaws in the 501(c)(3) system that results in NPs "eating their young." I have resisted non-profit work since then. Alas! it remains difficult to affect social change without the NP umbrella and I am reluctantly initiating a new non-profit. I pray that the last ten years out of the NP sector has given me a better perspective and a whole lot more wisdom.

    Jul 24, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Although I've heard Founder's syndrome defined as an unwillingness of the founder to relinquish "control" over an organization, what I have observed is that it is often used, unfairly I think, to describe founding EDs with strong opinions (which they usually have, because those are the type of people who start organizations) when they disagree with others in the organization. I think it is often used as an excuse for boards to avoid accepting their own responsibilities (fundraising, board self-evaluation, etc.), and I wish the term would be abandoned. It doesn't serve much useful purpose. BTW, I have found this story and the comments to be very thought provoking and interesting. Good job, Blue Cado.

    Jun 15, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I think founder's syndrome describes an organizational issue, and it shouldn't be used to describe the founder specifically. That to me would be scapegoating the founder. The founder can only hold an organization back when the rest of the org is somehow complicit.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I was asked to resign as ED for an organization I co-founded 15 years ago, after running it for only two. My idea of how to grow the organization differed from the board that I had helped recruit (but they had also done some self-recrutiting). It hurt, but I did it quickly and hopefully gracefully, and I'm proud that the organization has continued on to today with substantially the same mission (but at a static level in terms of budget and member size). Still, I have only a very distant relationship with it anymore. I continued to work and server on non-profit boards, until I transferred those skills into higher education administration. Over the past 4 years, I both worked and volunteered as a consultant and then as a board member for an organization that had an ED that was essentially a founder. She had a board that was totally disengaged and what I might assess as a weak staff and she was doing everything. We worked hard to build a new board, and worked closely with her frequently changing requests for dates and terms of her departure, and to determine the best qualities and search for an interm ED, as well as a rough strategic plan. It was decided to have a cross over period, so that the exiting ED could help train the incoming ED, and that I think was very valuable. As of the 31st of May, the exiting ED had moved completely away from the organization, and a new interm ED is in place. The interm status makes me a little nervous, I have to say, and I had to step down from the board for personal reasons...but I'm proud that we made it to that milestone in what I think is a humane way. I just spoke with the exiting ED, and she's already deeply engaged with another non-profit that is related to the original mission and might even be closer to her personal passion. This is not to say there weren't many moments of emotional rawness during the entire process...and relationships and loyalties heavily tested, sometimes broken, and sometimes repaired. Finally, this candid original story is great because it's such a classic narrative: it could have happened anywhere in America, in our particular strange corporate structure called a 501 (c) 3. So I'm glad that it was posted, and that the ED had courage to share...and that everyone has shared their thoughts and experiences so openly here (including someone from the other side). I hope the original author can learn to take the whole non-profit game a little less personally...because, indeed, it's supposed to be about the missions and clients we serve as both boards and EDs, not about us. Non-profits ARE businesses, though, and if they aren't working, change will happen, like it or not.

    Jun 16, 2011
  • Anonymous

    1) ED hand picking directors=poor practice 2) ED serving as voting board director=horrible practice Advocating for both practices is indicitive of someone most definitely suffering from Founder's Syndrome. I can't help to think that we're not hearing the full story here. My guess is that the majority of the board would come back with comments like: "If only we would have known about the financial condition of the organization...." "Why didn't the ED tell us about the financial condition?" "Why wasn't the ED more forthcoming and open with us?" Believe me, I know boards can be asleep at the switch, but I also know that boards don't often operate on whim and they are typically remiss to cause even minor organizational discontent. So, sure would be interesting to see an anonymous counter to this article. All said, what a rediculous way to handle the termination--sounds like some overly deligent legal advice going on--unless, of course, there were concerns extending beyond employment performance...

    Jun 16, 2011
  • Anonymous

    As with other posters, I agree that this account seems very one-sided. A board that is "unengaged" does not go to the trouble of firing an ED -- it is a lot of work, and means making a very tough decision. Currently, I serve on a board where most, if not all, of us are aware that the ED does the bare minimum required of her, does not follow policies, is often dishonest, withholds important information, doesn't deal with staff conflict, doesn't deal with any difficult problems, is not on top of finances, etc. We have tried offering and requiring training, and it just hasn't helped at all. We are still struggling, and the summer break (no more board meetings until September) won't help the situation. We have been beyond clear about the expectations, but our ED won't do anything that is difficult for her or results in more work. What's a group of volunteers that has already put way too much time into trying to straighten out a mess to do??

    Jun 17, 2011
  • Anonymous

    My sympathies to the author. Even the gentlest, least "personal" layoff hurts - how much more to be exiled from your creation. The world needs both nonprofit innovators and institution-builders and they are usually very different people. Founders ignore the rules and the evidence that there is no more room for another nonprofit, fighting for space from the outside. Builders learn the rules and play the game effectively to expand the organization's space within the established order. The board may or may not have made the right decision or handled it well, but clearly both parties realized that it was time for a transition to post-founder leadership. A more compliant, founder-worshipping board would have watched the financial problem play out from the sidelines. Her board members took the risk of leadership and will now be personally responsible for the financial recovery as well as the considerable work of hiring a new ED. I hope the author can get over the natural anger and take pride in her creation - including the board which she largely recruited.

    Jun 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    This story touched me, as did some of the responses This exact thing happened to me as a founder/executive director. after I left the organization floundered and eventually closed. When I recruited my board, I was young and ignorant and let the others had "more experience on other boards" run the show. Eventually, they too asked our small arts organization support itself strictly from earned income because they were tired of fund raising. So instead of leaving the board, they let me go. It was years later a number of the board members contacted me and apologized for their lack of knowledge about THEIR responsibility as a board member. FOr me new organization, I'm sticking to the THREE G's - Get Money, Give Money, or Get off the Board - plus a lot of Board Development and Training.

    Jun 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I second the comment that if you want to own the organization start a for-profit. These comments are all very interesting and represent the wide range of views in relation to non-profit governance. I believe all too often that Non-Profit EDs (esp. founders) forget the basic fundamentals of the non-profit structure--- the organization is created for the greater good and it does not belong to the staff or the board. If you'd like it to remain in your grasp forever you simply need to change how it is registered. The NP structure is designed to set up multiple levels of accountability (to mission and the public). It is true that boards often don't properly address their responsibilities but many EDs don't recruit or train boards properly. And that is often done in a way to undermine the potential of their authority. And while many people are commenting that the board was disrespectful we don't know if they suspected fiscal malfeasance or any other behavior that could warrant that. Depending on the circumstances it can be risky to allow terminated staff back in the building. I think this article speaks to the problem of how volunteer boards are selected and trained. When founders create boards of their friends you don't create systems of checks and balance and this demonstrates the need for accountability and oversight from funders and government. I also noticed that some comments mention that EDs often have the connections but they are also the ones who let their egos destroy many relationships and potential partners. It is also true that statistically speaking many organizations close when the founder leaves but this speaks more to poor organizational culture than it does any sort of expertise or skills only capable of a founder. It means that there likely wasn't a strategic exit plan as a result of egotistical or bad leadership throughout the organization.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Wow! I was not the founder, but an Area Director of a nonprofit. Reading this story was almost like reading what happened to me! Thanks for sharing this story as I can now see that these things happen to other good people who try their best to help a nonprofit by working long hours for inadequate pay because they love the work. This could be our failing---loving the work over being more aware of personality challenges and just good business sense. I just wonder how many other good people have been fired and had their reputation and feelings hurt due to inadequate board management. When nonprofits run out of good people to run great nonprofits, there will be fewer nonprofits helping more people. Where is this leading?

    Jul 24, 2011
  • Anonymous

    It is the "I" - "I" - "I" that this ED consistently uses to tell her story that makes me suspect founderitis. It is not about the ED - but rather an ED's ability to nuture and steward the mission of the organization. Obviously - the board did not feel this ED was doing so... and... in my experience with founders - at some point, and usually around 10-11 years, it is time to move on. It is sad when the founder does not see it themselves.

    Oct 18, 2011
  • Anonymous

    founders syndrome is a fallacy

    Oct 19, 2011
  • I have liked this story because it has touched my heart of functionality in my organisation as the founder. One thing i can say is that you as the founder you can't be liked by all the Board members and even when you recruit people on Board instead of appreciating the positions the have and also work hard to wards the vision of the organisation,the tend to gather their own ideas and try to divert the organisation into their personal benefits and in that situation they try all means to fire out the founder,because as the founder you are the vision bearere and once you are removed from the board your vision can not be continued a head.so my advice is that please founders be very wise while setting up governing rules and also while recruiting,recruit people whom you know well that can reach you vision for the organisation and have a percentage of "Dictatorship in democracy".Thanks MPATSWE FRANCIS, NKUMBA UNIVERSITY

    Sep 17, 2013

Pages

Leave a comment

Fill this field in if you want to post a name a user login

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <small> <sup> <sub> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h1> <h2> <h3> <h4> <img> <br> <br/> <p> <div> <span> <b> <i> <pre> <img> <u><strike>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

subscribe (free)

 

Donate to American Nonprofits, sponsor of Blue Avocado