Firing My Friend, the Founder

Blue Avocado's recent article, "The Board Just Fired Me, and I'm the Founder!" generated a huge reader response. For this issue we interviewed a board member from a different organization:

My wife became friendly with someone she knew from PTA, and one day they invited us and our kids over for dinner. We hit it off. Ben [names have been changed] ran this nonprofit for low-income kids that did after school tutoring, had a big summer camp, and did some programs in the public schools in a low-income, mostly African American neighborhood. Something like 1,500 kids a year. Anyway, we got to be friends and he ended up asking me to join the board.

At first everything seemed fine. The board president Carter was a very impressive African-American man. He ran his own company and he did a good job of running board meetings. He was the only African-American on the board. [Ben and the author are both white.]

I wasn't sure what the board was adding to anything. I'm in banking so it was inevitable that I became the treasurer. It wasn't much work because most of the money -- maybe 80% -- came from the school district or city government. Ben really loved the kids and you could see he really bonded with them.

Financial troubles

Then we started to lose some of the school district money. They were cutting back; things got pretty tough. We laid off a few people, but we were still bleeding.

We lost a city government contract. Board members were supposed to call anybody we knew in city government, and I called someone I knew. He said that the organization didn't have a good reputation at the school district. I was pretty shocked and told Ben about it, and he convinced me that it was just a political thing. Looking back, it was a red flag and maybe I should have done something more about it, although I don't know what I would have done. And it probably was just a political thing.

Things were going from bad to worse financially. We were running in the red and Ben kept saying -- and we believed him -- that he was going to get this or that grant but then it wouldn't come through. It was very frustrating because we just couldn't get him to focus on finance stuff. It just wasn't in his repertoire. He kept saying it was about the mission, and he had spent so many years on it and things had always worked out before somehow.

Ben was a very controlling executive director; he never empowered anybody financially because he was unsure himself about financial stuff. The board chair before Carter had been the board chair for a very long time, and he hadn't paid attention, didn't hold Ben accountable. So when Carter came in he started to try to hold Ben accountable, and Ben had never had that experience before. It was oil and water.

I didn't know what we could do. The board president kept saying we had to do something really different and Ben kept saying he was optimistic about money coming in. Board meetings became unpleasant and it was frustrating for everyone.

How long did this go on? Months.

Talk of firing

I can't remember how it first came up, but people on the board started to talk about how Ben had to go, even though he was the one who started the organization a decade or more before. Carter called an emergency meeting of the executive committee at his office. (Ben always insisted that the board meet at the nonprofit's office -- which was a good idea -- so we would be in the neighborhood, so that meeting really stood out.) At the meeting, it was deja vu all over again: Ben said we would be late on payroll again but that he was sure some new grants would be coming in soon.

At that point, Carter said we had to go into executive session and Ben left. After he left, Carter laid out his case for firing Ben. We had a really terrific #2 person, a woman who was a real spark plug, and he said that we should put her in the top job.

Everybody more or less agreed about Ben. I argued and finally got them to agree to give him six more months to turn it around. After all, it was his business, and he knew more about it than we did. Ben had never had an evaluation by the board and we decided we had to have one.

I was very impressed with Carter's dedication to the organization. I knew him from business and he is very smart, very capable. I was extremely frustrated with Ben, but I was also very dubious about the direction that Carter seemed to be taking the board.

To make a long story short, six months later the organization was still in trouble and we agreed to give it another six months. After months of agony there was another meeting of the executive committee where I was told, "We tried it your way and it didn't work. Now we have to fire him." The board president had talked to the #2 and asked her if she would take over. She was very loyal to Ben and told us that she would take over only as an acting director.

Game over

I told the group I wanted to resign so that I wouldn't be on the board when they voted to fire Ben. I could see it was inevitable at this point. The next week I called Ben and told him that I was resigning from the board. The week after that the board had a special meeting and they unanimously fired him.

What happened? I don't know the details, but the #2 person did step in, although she didn't want the job permanently and really wasn't up to it. Six or seven months later they closed the organization. They were broke. She moved to Texas.

You gotta wonder: who was ultimately right? We were in very big financial trouble and Ben had no idea how to deal with it. At the same time I don't think Carter gave Ben enough credit for the successes the organization had had, and that these were largely due to Ben. The organization was Ben.

Am I still friends with Ben? No. He never talked to me again. It broke up the friendship between my wife and his wife. My wife heard that he was looking for a job with retirement benefits and without a board. She heard that he eventually got a job at a hospital but that might not be right.

What would I have done differently looking back? I wouldn't have joined the board in the first place.

Thank you for sharing this story with Blue Avocado readers.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Comments (41)

  • Anonymous

    After reading last issues' column from the ED point of view and now this article from a board member's point of view, I want to think that everyone wants to do what is best for the organization. But, each side has its mistakes. I keep wondering what are the lessons learned? Better communications? Better transparency? Better board understanding of nonprofit management? Better grasp of reality?

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    As an ED myself, my solution would be to bring in a financial/ fundraising person to work with the ED/ founder. By firing the ED, the board distroyed the organization. Maybe the organization would have closed anyway, but at least it would have been through the efforts of the ED and the staff. The BOD was looking for a quick fix - that never works. If the BOD disagreed with the direction the ED was working, they should have quit the board and wished the ED the best of luck.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Absolutely both sides made mistakes. The ED should have called upon the board (and perhaps a specialist) to help with fundraising. The Board should have seen that the organization was built on a single person and therefore not sustainable in his absence. They needed to address that structural issue, common with small non-profits where the founder is also the current director. Ultimately, something had to change because the organization was not financially viable. Because the ED did not offer a solution other than vague promises that the money will come in, the board did what they thought would work... fire the ED. There is a good chance the organization would have failed in a few months in either case.

    Oct 24, 2011
  • A frank ED evaluation can help in a situation where the ED is neglecting a major part of their job. I experienced a similar dynamic where an organization where I served on the board hired a person as ED who was had great relationship building skills and quick became beloved, but didn't have the finance and fundraising skills (she came from higher education, where her budget had been handed to her). After 10 months, we did a formal evaluation and gave her honest feedback about her strengths and her weakness in this area, confirming that it was a crucial part of the job and that we would provide training. Upon reflection, she realized she wasn't motivated to improve that skill set, and resigned with appreciation for us helping her understand how the job was not a fit for her. She wasn't a founder. In this case, I think it is important to communicate the new skill sets required to maintain (versus establish) a nonprofit. Helping the founder think about legacy and leadership succession is important as well. Ideally, a mutually-agreeable exit strategy can be found, but it is a tough one when the founder is so highly identified with the organization--in that case, their determination may be what is carrying the whole thing. Thankis for sharing this story, as well as the last one.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I must say this is like the organization that I'm currently with, with the exception that my organization has been around for 90 years and the #2 person was completely forgotten about and not even approached about acting in a Interim role even though they were 100% qualified. Sad that a start up organization doesn't have the foresight to prepare themselves for transitions like this better. I hope this proves as a lesson to all NPO's to start succession planning NOW... your ED may get hit by a bus... then what?

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Not just better, but more communications were called for. For me, the most shocking line in this piece is "Ben had never had an evaluation by the board and we decided we had to have one."

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    That's funny, because for me it was the most encouraging line. I was abruptly fired as an ED without ever getting an evaluation. The closest I got was 3 months previous, when a consultant did an anonymous survey, and all but one board member reported being satisfied with my performance. I would have LOVED for someone on the board to have said, "It's not fair to oust our ED without giving a formal evaluation and an opportunity to better meet our expectations." I can understand why you'd find the line shocking. But at least this board was holding itself somehow accountable instead of simply pinning everything on the ED.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I think the greatest mistake here is separating the well-being of the organization from the well-being of an individual. When we keep our 'eye on the prrize' - our vision, mission, and goals, and stay conscious to issues that are creating mission drift or big issues like financial instability, then we are not doing the #1 job of a Board - to be the 'keepers' of the well-being of an organization. It does take great courage to say and do the things that may create some hard feelings amongst people. There are ways to deliver that information that are more effective than others. Because of one person and the willingness of this Board to keep the status quo, 1,500 inner city kids are without a program that was useful. That's the real sad story in all of this. Nobody wins if we're not willing to address key issues. As a founder of an organization, I was aware when it was time for me to step away because others needed to learn how to take the reins. I was suffering from burn-out and the more I did, the more there was to do. Other Board members were dropping like flies and I was feeling more and more overwhelmed as the jobs piled up that only I apparently knew how to do. I recognized that I had a particular skill set that had lended itself well to doing all of the admin and a host of other things. I also knew that if something happened to me, nobody else knew the day-to-day workings of the organization. I had become a full-time plus unpaid Executive Director. So, I fired myself (quit) from the Board and it's awesome to see that everything is doing just fine in my absence. Yes, there were a lot of questions at first about how to do this or that, but people have found their way. My first love is the organization and it will continue on for years to come as others get ignited with the passion and vision that we share.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I'm not sure I see much of a parallel between this and the piece that generated it other than both center on firing founders. There's an effort here for balance, I suppose, in that this is from a board member's perspective. Otherwise, the two pieces characterize very different situations to my mind. This writer recounts a recipe for disaster: 1.The board seemed woefully ignorant of what its programs were about. 2. The board did not evaluate its programs or require the ED to do so. 3. The board did not evaluate the ED. I sympathize with the writer, who will now probably stay as far from nonprofit boards as possible. Before we decide to join a nonprofit board, especially one with a staff, and we don't want to lose a friend and gain an ulcer, we should know something about nonprofit board work, we should ask a lot of questions, and we should make sure the board has the proper governance procedures in place.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Thank you for bringing up the question of the quality of the programs. Almost all of the comments are focusing on the ED evaluation (or lack thereof) or the financial situation. Why aren't people questioning the comment with regard to the "bad reputation"? Perhaps it was "political" but what does that mean? What was the quality of the programs -- does any one know? Perhaps they were indeed "bad" or not as good as the other programs that were still getting contracts. Evaluating the quality of services is essential. Frankly, missing either a regular monitoring and assessment of programs or an evaluation of the ED is red flag that the organization is not likely to be doing anything well. Poor quality programming may have been at the heart of the financial difficulties -- it says something that so many grants were "falling through." There's likely a larger story here.

    Jul 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Another provocative piece. I think this story demonstrates how useless most boards are. What ultimately happened? A man with vision and passion was discarded. An organization he had successfully kept afloat (even if he didn't "focus" on financial matters) failed once he was fired. The good work it had been doing came to an end. Friendships were ruined. The amateurs who were on the board walked away unscathed--it wasn't their livelihood or life's work. I would be surprised if any of them took responsibility for the demise of the organization. It's a common tale from the nonprofit world and illustrates how the conventional model of nonprofit governance is not only dysfunctional, but often results in damage to some of our society's best organizations and individuals.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    You are making an assumption that the organization would have continued to be kept afloat if they didn't fire the ED. The article mentions months of financial problems (at one point he mentions six months that turn into another six months and this is well after the problems started) that kept continuing to grow, problems making payroll, and a bad reputation with the school district. It sounds like there was a very good chance of the good work that it had been doing was coming to an end already. Also, just because a particular board is useless does not necessarily demonstrate that the conventional model of nonprofit governance is dysfunctional and damages our best organizations. It could also demonstrate that the organization does a bad job of using the board members it has and/or recruiting quality board members.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I agree with a lot of what you said, though after working 23 years in the nonprofit industry, I agree with the other poster that the conventional governal model is flawed. I find it oppressive. Who's job is it to engage board members? Typically this falls on the shoulders of the CEO. Ok. So who is going to run the agency then? Don't forget the donors who the board feels needs to be spoon fed and coddled by the CEO and staff, whether the donor expects it or not. Maybe they would like to see their funds used to help clients instead of having their rear-end kissed. What a concept. But who has time to do that when the board expects staff to spend their time schmoozing? And then there are volunteers who staff are supposed to create roles for and manage regardless of how many people want to get inolved.....just so they feel important. Sorry if I sound jaded. It just seems like the last people actually benefitting from nonprofit organizations are those who the nonprofit sector was designed to serve. Far too much time is spent on the less needy.

    Jul 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    As a former board member of a national organization for 19 years, I feel that this author forgot the most important job of a board member - to be accountable to the stake holders (all of them) of the organization. When a board member (or members) try to do what is right for an employee, or donor, or class of recipient of services, and thus neglect the rest of the stake holders - stories like this become inevitable.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • I think there was good and bad in this story. Firstly, the writer walked away from a tough decision that in fact he agreed with. Don't join a board if you're not prepared to make tough decisions. In fact, your continued involvement might have helped the #2 do a better job. However, you managed to sway the board for a full year to help your friend. This was admirable (for the board as well, to accomodate the new guy to such an extent.) But during that year, what did you do to help your friend realize the seriousness of the situation? Did you push the board to engage with the ED more? Did anyone on the board look into fund raising themselves, or was everyone just waiting for the ED to flop? Sounds like the board wasn't too involved in creating a healthy situation for the organization. They could critique, sure, but what's also needed are ideas and efforts. A board should not be simply a feedback forum. The ED, for his part, never understood the form his organization grew into. It wasn't only about him anymore and it takes an adult to realize that. Ask Steve Jobs of Apple. If you form a board, it's supposedly because you realize the well-being of (your) organization is more important the you being the leader of it. Allen Craig www.allencraigphotography.com

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Responsibility for the demise should be shared by the founder, who didn't responsibly oversee finances, and by the board, which failed to oversee the founder (e.g. no evaluation process). It is possible that additional training for the founder in financial management or hiring someone to assist with finances could have improved the situation. The board should have been better deployed to seek additional resources and/or ameliorate the relationship with the government funder. Finally, the withdrawal of government funding also could have been a major contributor to the demise of the nonprofit regardless of the board and founder's actions and inactions - sometimes there are environmental factors beyond anyone's control. However, had their communication been healthier perhaps that issue could have been addressed before it became fatal. Katherine Morrison Morrison Nonprofit Transitions

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Much has been already said about this story and the saga of Ben. What is critical in this picture is what the board's real responsibility is and that is to be the gate keepers of the mission. They needed to operate to ensure the mission could continue beyond Ben and beyond them. MANY organizations lack diversified funding and the board does nothing about it, and then when funding gets cut boards will look to the ED/CEO and say what is YOUR plan. It should be what is "OUR" plan. First, the board should have been paying attention to the funding sources and planning for revenue replacement with Ben. Next the board should have been setting annual goals for the organization, Ben and the themselves and performing evaluations.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • One of the many things I like about this story is that it has so many threads in it, is typical in so many ways, and yet is a voice that is almost never heard among nonprofit professionals. The reality is that most board members take their jobs seriously but also it is not central to their lives. They are often asked onto boards because of personal friendships with either the ED or a board member, and they have to balance those personal relationships with other concerns, at least in terms of their own actions.

    There isn't some crystal ball that can tell us what would have happened if one of the thousand "ifs" had happened instead of what did. I really appreciate the first-person sense of what it's like not to be 100% sure about a big organizational decision, either as it unfolds or afterwards.

    When we on staff try to put ourselves into the shoes of board members, we should remember how it feels to them (not just how we think it SHOULD feel to them). Jan

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    What is funny to me about many of the responses to this article is that everyone is assuming that an evaluation, or better oversight, or more leadership, could have saved this organization from financial disaster. As an ED of an organization that is struggling to deal with the hard financial times, and as a parent who has seen how many difficult decisions school districts have to make nowadays, I heard another inevitability in the story. If you are a service organization, and most of your money comes from one contract, and the local government agency has to cut back, then it is likely that you will be seriously hit and may have to close your doors. Non-profits like this are closing doors right and left today, and I find it hard to blame the individuals given the meta-economy in which we all form a part. The thing that I see here is that no one was willing to say that it was likely that the organization would have to cut back seriously, and to form a transition plan (no matter how painful) that didn't scapegoat individuals and yet took the situation seriously. It's a shame that the founding ED couldn't do that -- but many people have a hard time with those steps when they care about the work and know that they are going to see it decimated. And it's a shame that the Board made a (clearly bad) decision that resulted in the organization going under. As someone said, it may have done so anyway, but it hadn't yet, until they took charge. I feel like as a community we need to talk about how to ensure that services are provided for the most vulnerable in a horrible financial environment -- since many people & groups are unfortunately facing the same challenges. And less about laying all of the "accountability" blame at the feet of the founder or the Board. In a bad situation, people sometimes make bad decisions, and yet the outcome is not fully their fault.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous above: I think you are making some excellent, telling points. THANK YOU. Jan

    Jul 20, 2011
  • I agree with Jan - Thanks for your comments (Anonymous, 7/20/11), which wisely step back from "whose fault was it - the board or the ED" to focus on the larger conditions that affected this organization (and many others). It is often easier to evaluate (judge) individuals than it is to maintain a wider perspective on our fields of endeavor. We often want our organizations to be the exception to the rule, uniquely able to operate outside of the financial and political realities that surround us. This story is a good reminder that we all operate (and must evaluate ourselves) in a larger context. Brenda Cummings A now-absent founder of one non-profit (which has survived and thrived) Current president of the board of an all-volunteer nonprofit.

    Jul 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    The above response addresses the (apparent) business model of the NFP in the article: a service organization that relied upon government and school district support for value-added, tutoring and/or after-school programs that are valued in good ecnomic times and quickly axed in the bad. It's unfortunate that the organization didn't engage in strategic planning prior to this fiscal crisis or at least once they started bleeding money. And it's too bad that the staff leaders (No. 1 and No. 2) couldn't help the board to see the value of a critical examination of the current funding environment, the value of their services, the reputation of the organization in the community, and the feasibility of replacing government funds or fees with other income. The board apparently relied upon the ED's charismatic personality in lieu of solid planning, realistic income and cash flow projections, and annual program assessments -- not to mention being derlict in their duty to evaluate the ED. Could this organization survived? It's hard to say but on-going, solid assessment and planninig might have helped the organization to continue in a reduced service level or to cease operations (if an unavoidable ending) with a measure of grace and even celebration for their years of service to the community. As a long-time ED, I have never sought to have friends on the board nor have tried to make friends of board members. The board-staff relationship is a business relationship and should be treated as such. (Actually, I see my board-building role as helping the board develop a community-responsive board recruitment program, while providing orientation, and communicating, communicating, and communicating with the board individually and collectively.) Board members need to remember that their fidicuary responsibility it to the organization and its constituents. They should not be in the thrall of a staff member (or board member). It's often tough, as the ED, to be on the receiving end of annual evaluations. But the unexamined life is not worth living.

    Aug 09, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Thank you for bringing up the evaluation of the scope of fundraising activities and sources. Any organization which has benefited from public funds will suffer when public funds become more scarce. Private funders can vary from year to year and wide spread local interest can be hit by income declines. However, a vibrant, interactive, community based board will often attract newly interested parties. An evaluation of the program for fitness to its purpose - i.e. are youth who have benefited helping the next gen of recipients? Are volunteers given exit interviews regarding program strengths and weaknesses? Have previous funders changed their mission goals? Did each and every board member spend some time volunteering in the field? To me, it comes down to asking the right questions and acting personally on your own questions - become engaged in what you profess to foster.

    Jun 25, 2013
  • Anonymous

    As a board member for nonprofits, an executive director (who once took over from a retiring founder and who has been fired once in my checkered past from another organization) and now as an consultant, this story brings back lots of memories! Succession planning, as mentioned earlier, is very important. Also important: boards must hold themselves accountable. The problems did not appear overnight. Someone (several someones) let this happen. When the executive director and the board are not working as partners and there is no accountability for anyone bad things happen. There is plenty of blame to go around here. Thanks for the cautionary tale.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I'd say two things strike me: The board member said the "organization was Ben." Thereby lies the road to ruin - it's not Ben's business, it's a nonprofit. When you start a business, if you want, it can be all you - you are taking the risk, investors are willing to invest in you, and if the business dies, it hurts you and your investors. But nonprofits get special benefits (no taxes, etc.) because they are for the public good - and they are supposed to be sustainable beyond one person. The board, like many boards, relied too much on the executive and then blamed him for all the flaws of the organization. Which leads to the second thing. The board, besides not doing its job on evaluating and leading Ben, wasn't do its job ensuring the fiscal sustainability of the organization. Yes, many nonprofits have been badly hurt financially. But once the writing is on the wall about the changes in funding (and no organization should for long allow itself to be so dependent on one funding source), the board along with the executive director had the responsibility to develop some new plans and strategies for revenue. Instead it sounds like this board just kept wringing its hands and saying we're in bad financial shape. Blame to go all around.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Non-profits and religious organizations have a sensitivity about them that is largely missing in the for-profit sector. I'm not saying that some large corporations don't try to "improve" employees (work plans, etc), I'm just saying that the NP sector typically works much harder at improving problemed employees even when it might be a lost cause. I guess that's mostly a positive characteristic of the NP sector. However, the principle role of the board is to define and protect what is in the best interest of the organization and its mission. I have witnessed a number of organizations struggle under a period of "reform" involving some individual only to eventually be worse off, closed, or eventually firing the person under reform. I can't really say that I've ever seen one of these "reform projects" turn out positive for the organization or the subject individuals. So, when do attempts at improvement become detrimental to organizations? Some churches and charities chose to attempt "reforming" staff stealing from them while keeping them in the same positions. Is that a good practice that protects the organization's mission?

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    A nonprofit should ALWAYS be larger and "longer" than one person. It belongs first to the community it serves and the people who invest in it, but also to the board and all of the staff. To make choices that serve the ED best when the ED is not making choices that serve those persons best is a misguided interpretation of the board's role. The board must make choices that best benefit the greater good, and sometimes that means moving past a founder.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • You should never join a Board when the organization's Executive Director is your friend. You will be expected to be supportive of the ED (which you appear to have been) and will avoid doing anything that might jeopardize your friendship. Also, you referred to the organization as HIS business. It's not. He does not own it. Just because he was the founder doesn't mean that he should be deferred to. I would not have given him six months to shape up. He wasn't likely to change in any way.

    Jul 20, 2011
  • Anonymous

    People with the vision to create a nonprofit are frequently not good at the financials that is why the duties are usually seperated. The ED should have had a money person that he worked with. If he insisted on micromanaging the organization then he undermined everything he built.

    Board members often seem to think that their only involvement is to show up at the board meeting (most of the time) and tick off "non-profit board member" on their resume. They are often executives of for-profit organizations who are used to sitting back and doing none of the hard work; and they expect a non-profit to run the same way. These people make terrible decisions and are more grief than help to an organization. Boards should be the driving force in fund-raising and in creating/maintaining the reputation of the organization. They should have contacts, influence, and energy. Otherwise they are just taking up space.

    If they aren't going to bring resources to the table and help the mission, then they should not waste space at the table. Boards should have term limits. Board members who hang around for 15 or 20 years are usually an impediment to moving the organization forward because they become proprietary about the organization and out-dated in their approach to how things should work.

    In the above story it seems that no one on the board had any political contacts or influence even though they were on the board of an organization funded primarily through government. No one on the board tried to figure out why the reputation with the school board was bad, or if it really was, and no one on the board tried to remedy the situation by doing anything more useful than making it the ED's problem/fault. These board members were apparently all a bunch of useless ponces who were on the board for their own ends, not for the organization.

    Jul 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    One of the major functions of the Board is to evaluate and provide supervision to the ED. This Board acted appropriately in recognizing their failure to date and rectifying that before firing the ED. To do otherwise would have furthered their own failure. The fact that the ED didn't use that feedback as an opportunity to grow or to identify another resource for the financial decisions (working more closely with the Treasurer, perhaps?) was his failure. I worked for an org like this one -- where the ED budgeted based on her "wishful thinking" and ALWAYS ran a deficit, which somehow surprised the Board every single year. In this case, the Board had responsibility to approve smaller income budgets, requiring the ED to cut expenses -- even at the cost of layoffs or trimming programs.

    Jul 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I think it is worth noting that the trouble started when the organization started to experience financial hardship. Without getting into causality, it is important to remember that things get really hard for everyone IN the organization when it is struggling. Our library has gotten on the bad side of our conservative, small-government, privatizing mayor. Is it the Director's "fault?" I can't imagine being able to say yes to this. But the now overworked staff is upset, annoyed at him and at each other's throats. They've stopped communicating effectively with him and each other and frequently try making end runs around him to the Board of Directors and even the Friends Board. Could the director handle the situation and/or the mayor more effectively? Perhaps. But there is a lot of anger all around that may get amplified when the mayor speaks disrespectfully to him.

    Jul 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I think it is worth noting that the trouble started when the organization started to experience financial hardship. Without getting into causality, it is important to remember that things get really hard for everyone IN the organization when it is struggling. Our library has gotten on the bad side of our conservative, small-government, privatizing mayor. Is it the Director's "fault?" I can't imagine being able to say yes to this. But the now overworked staff is upset, annoyed at him and at each other's throats. They've stopped communicating effectively with him and each other and frequently try making end runs around him to the Board of Directors and even the Friends Board. Could the director handle the situation and/or the mayor more effectively? Perhaps. But there is a lot of anger all around that may get amplified when the mayor speaks disrespectfully to him.

    Jul 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Having run a number of non-profits, funding is always an issue and it is not the ED's responsibility alone. Legally, the BOD has the fiduciary responsibility for the non-profit corporation and, in some cases, can be held legally liable for losses, etc. A good BOD will work in committee to ensure fiscal stability, fund raising, employee evaluation and succession planning, etc. Founders of organizations (and I was that at one point) do not 'own' an organization, the community does and it should serve its clients first. Hard financial times face us all, today and yesterday, and a sound financial plan for the future is paramount if we want to perpetuate what we start. That is a board, not staff, responsibility!

    Jul 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    The very first mistake was getting on a board of an organization where the ED is a friend. I see this happening all the time - the ED asks friends to sit on their board rather than the board taking control of their own succession plan.It is not possible to take an objective view of anything when the person whom you are supposed to evaluate is a friend.

    Jul 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    It seems to me that the problem nobody identified was that the organization was capable of "getting' contracts but obviously could not manage them after they got them so they had developed a bad reputation. That normally comes from bad program audits, not being in compliance with a contract, not submitting reports to the funder timely, etc. Somebody should have looked at their quality control for their contracts and grants and brought things into compliance. A plan should have been developed for an in person meeting with some of the government officials to see exactly what caused their comments and to demonstarte to them that corrective action would be taken. A good reputation comes from doing what you promise and good public relations which means performing according to the contract and maintaining good relationships.

    Jul 22, 2011
  • First time to this site and first time response. As the founder and ceo of a 12 year old NP, I appreciate the ideas and constructive critique's. In addition to ED, Exec. Team, and staff evaluations, a regular Board evaluation is important as well. By measuring the Board's performance against their agreed upon responsibilities (hopefully in contract form), serves to remind, focus, and provide learning opportunities for Board members. Our organizational culture is one of identifying and nurturing the strengths and talents of all team members. What becomes very clear in this environment are the tasks clearly "not" in an individuals sweet spot. Like Ben, if I played in the financial arena, I would cause damage to the organization. Since this became obvious to all, it was very easy to gain consensus to hire a Finance Director. All stakeholders are much happier with the arrangement, including me. In Ben's case, what expectations where the Board holding onto that made their lives miserable? It seemed they locked themselves into two solutions, either Ben fixed the financial problem or he was fired. A third, more prudent solution I think, was to acknowledge his weakness in the area and step up or commit to hiring someone who could. Some rambling thoughts.... Mike

    Jul 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    The Foundation Center in NYC mentioned the three-Gs the other day pertaining to board members and their defined responsibilities: Give money, get money, or get off the board. Sound advise as I develop a board for a start up educational NPO.

    Jul 23, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Wow! Thanks for sharing this story with our Texas Nonprofit organization! I know a group in Texas that is about to face the same thing! Foundations have been withholding funds just at the time we are in a capital campaign and working to get funds for fulltime staff to run the mostly volunteer organization. The founder used his own money to start the organization and he and his wife drive in from the suburbs daily to run the nonprofit and receive no salary. However, they also control the funds and decides how, when, or if someone should get paid or reimbursed for items for the nonprofit. I will share this story with that nonprofit in hopes that they see they must make a change ASAP to keep funders assured of leadership, while yet giving appreciation to the founding family. They will need the wisdom of Solomon!

    Jul 24, 2011
  • Unfortunately, the board of directors does not seem to have committed to being a part of the fundraising arm nor did they have a recognized mechanism in place to evaluate the executive director or board chair with some regularity. Founder-Execs are particularly at risk since most often board members hesitate to criticize them (or volunteer treasurers). Execs who are founders often have a hard time accepting change or criticism. Additionally most folks are reticent to "fire" a volunteer" or a "do-gooder" for the very reason that the work done is of a charitable nature. I know this from two angles; one as a director who was once fired and as a volunteer administrator who has given many nonprofit management seminars. I recovered from my firing and am thankful that it happened when it did as it became the first step in a whole new life! I could have sued the organization as I had grounds but chose not to because despite the wrong way it happened, I still love the organization and it has grown so well that I have continued to support its work (even 20 years later). Remember that whether your locale is a "can-fire-at will" state or not, unless everyone is clear on their expectations and that those expectations are realistic, wrtten and made measurable (outcome and time), organizations continue to face these challenges effectively or have to deal with lawsuits, liability or worse.

    Aug 01, 2011
  • Anonymous

    My observation reading this article is that certainly the ED needed to develop better financial management skills, but I wonder if the board ever provided that opportunity? Was ongoing professional develoment something they made sure was included in the budget when the approved it, or was it something they considered non-essential? I also notice that although the organization seemed to be in constant financial flux, the board didn't seem to do very much to attract support or assist with fundraising either, at least not that was mentioned in this article. Grants and government funding are mentioned, but it seems that neither the ED nor the Board did much to develop private donors. The ED was too optimistic and the board was too willing to lay blame without also assessing themselves, or take a leadership role except to fire the ED. Instead of putting on a search for the best replacement, they took the path of least resistance by giving the role to somebody who cleary didn't really want it. This organization collapsed due to founders syndrome, plain and simple. Very sad, but also unfortunately very common.

    Aug 03, 2011
  • I am struck looking over these comments the degree to which executive directors blame the board and assume either that the executive could have improved with evaluation or that the exec could have turned it around. Another reading might be that the executive director ran it into the ground and the board stepped in too late to stop it. And, like most founders, the executive director purposefully (whether consciously or not) recruited board members who would stay out of his way, and he didn't let them see bad information.

    Sometimes determining who is to blame provides a worthwhile lesson and opportunity for reflection. In this case it was the ED's fault.

    Jun 09, 2013

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