Failure to Fire

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 21st, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Over the holidays, I was fortunate enough to see the revival of South Pacific, last seen when I was but a wee lass.  Its songs  are currently in that perpetual song fest in my head with one in particular:  a larger “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair.”  I have, however, swapped “Man” and “Hair” with other things.
Mary Martin in South Pacific

The version I am currently singing for the sector is “I’m Gonna Wash Bad Practices Right Outta the Sector.”  Not nearly as catchy as Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it amuses me.  On the dawn of this new decade, it is truly more than time for the sector to rid itself of behaviors and cultural norms that hold us back.

To wit:  the nonprofit sector doesn’t fire; we work with people, we understand, we chicken out, we do infinite correction plans, and let time take its course.  If I hear one more person say to me, “But s/he is a nice person” as excuse for not firing an underperforming or nonperforming staff member or removing a board member, I will not be responsible for my actions.

Folks:  wake up!  When we work in the nonprofit sector, when we volunteer to do the job of board member, we are not taking on a hobby that we can pick up and put down as time and whim allow.  In both cases, we have agreed to do a job that should have a clear and written set of responsibilities attached to it, a set of annual goals, a scheduled and understood annual performance mechanism, and rewards for doing that job well (which can simply be heartfelt thanks and appreciation or other no- or low-cost options) and consequences, including the ultimate one of being let go (does that sound “nicer” than fired?).

The for-profit world understands the value and importance of firing people when they are not performing; in fact, many do adhere to Jack Welch’s principle of every year firing the bottom 10%, regardless.  Our failure to fire is often a point for derision by for-profit people who understand that we don’t know how to run our businesses effectively.  But more upsetting to me is that more and more of the younger employees in the nonprofit sector—our future leaders—simply roll their eyes, express extreme frustration with the failure to fire underperforming and nonperforming colleagues, only to later on suggest working a little harder or a little longer with this very same employee.  The unhealthy culture sucks them in, and bad practices continue.

So, to wit:  let’s us change the perception and reality that we are the nice sector and don’t want to offend anyone or hurt feelings.  Instead, let’s become the humane sector that understands its responsibility is to fulfill our mission promises to our stakeholders.  In order to do so, we must have the right players—staff, volunteers and volunteer board members—on the bus.  Which, in turn, means that we will have to say no, fire (no euphemisms, please) people, use the removal clause for board members stipulated in our bylaws, all with the goal of building the strongest team to carry out our mission.  Firing does not have to be ugly, as so many currently practice it; it can be done decently, humanely, allowing a person to leave with his/her dignity intact and support available.  But, loyalty must, first and foremost, be to our mission, not to the people—board, staff and other volunteers alike– who are supposed to help execute that mission.

To wit:   we must, and very quickly, come to understand the concept of return on investment (ROI).  Though funders, charity watchdogs and, increasingly, the general public, believe that upwards of 80% of money coming into a charity must be spent on programs and services always, the reality is that sometime we must invest in the administrative and fundraising side of the organization, beyond that 10%-20% those outsiders figure, in order to be better at fulfilling our mission for the long-term.  This is ROI!  We must invest in professional development for our board and staff; we must invest in organizational development by engaging in strategic planning and business planning and development planning; we must invest in marketing in order to ensure our ability to deliver on mission.

But ROI also comes from not taking short cuts and the easy way out when really an organization needs to invest in doing things the right way.  As a board, we have a legal duty to engage in reasonable inquiry and to demonstrate skill and diligence in all of our decision-making.  Thus, we should never be giving work to an individual just because s/he is the friend of a board member or it saves us having to look elsewhere, do some homework, interview candidates, etc.  We must first create a bid process and then adhere to it all of the time and not just when it is convenient.

We must understand that strategic planning cannot be done in a day or a month, by one or a subcommittee of the board.  Recognizing that the origins of strategic planning are rooted in the military–its process for preparing for battle—should sound the alarm that there is no quick, down and dirty way to do strategic planning, unless you want to risk a bad outcome.  Good strategic planning, planning that will reap that ROI for the mission and the organization for years to come, takes time and, to a certain extent, money.

We must understand that expediency in the short term often costs tremendously in the long term.  Time and time again, boards reach for the expedient way to replace an outgoing (fired or resigned) executive director by putting a board member in as interim, who then returns to being “just a regular board member” upon the arrival of the new executive director.

Or, equally expedient and treacherous, the board puts a staff member who is unlikely to be hired as the permanent executive director in as interim who then returns to a) being peer to those s/he recently bossed and b) being an underling when s/he was the top dog.  Or, the board hires too quickly simply because it wants the process over (it is, after all, hard work to do a good hiring process) and hires poorly, only to find itself spending too much time managing a poor employee and redoing the search process.

My list of cultural changes that must happen to make us as strong, healthy and vibrant a sector as we must be could go on and on and on.  But I’ll stop and return to singing, with what I hope is a Greek chorus behind me:  we must wash these bad practices right out of the sector.  And I do mean right now!

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.