Not the Supreme Court

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on March 29th, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Founders of nonprofits are special people.  They have vision.  They have sufficient charisma and/or connections to get that vision off the ground.  Some may even have the ability to help sustain that vision.  But they are not gods; they are not infallible; and they are not United States Supreme Court Justices, appointed for life.  There comes a time when every founder has to go.  Completely.

While I have known a few founders who have recognized when it was time for them to go in order to allow the organization to move on, and I have even known a few who, almost from the very beginning, were putting into place the path to their departure.  They are the exceptions.  Most often, it falls to the board to recognize when the time has come to replace the founder and to move him/her out.  Want to take a guess how well this works?

Here is my tale of three different organizations, each of which has failed to removed its founder executive director to the detriment of the whole. Organization A has been around for almost 20 years.  It was founder led until several years ago, at which point the board hired its first, non-founder executive director.  The board, which was (and remains 90%) all friends and family of the founder, many of whom had been on the board from the very beginning, did not do what it should have done:  thrown a big fundraising event to honor the founder, his legacy and his departure, and then said good-bye.  No, the board, in all of its “wisdom” allowed the founder to stay in the organization and put him on the board.  Where he, his friends and family, remain.

Just how easy do you think it is for the new executive director to create her own culture within the organization? to introduce new ideas and approaches for doing things, both administratively and programmatically? to develop independent relationships with board members?  It is, in so many ways, akin to the stereotypical buttinsky mother-in-law living next door to her daughter-in-law—only worse.  Smart or not, beloved or not, successful or not, boards have a nigh impossible time not listening to what a founder has to say.  Far too often, boards do not understand that no one, and that includes a founder, owns a nonprofit.  Far too often, they fail to understand that it is a board’s collective responsibility to determine, after careful thought, reflection, discussion, and an assessment of facts—not a founder’s want—what is best for the organization and not a founder’s responsibility.  Instead, it allows the founder to continue to control and dictate what the organization will do from a seat on the board!  All the while eviscerating the executive director whom they are paying to manage the organization.

Organization B is in its 20th year, and the founder executive director still runs the organization—and the board.  He likes to say that he knows he may be part of the problem; he likes to say that he wants the board to do its job.  But the evidence is all to the contrary.  The board has never created a job description for the executive director and there is no annual performance review.  The founder executive director has dug a moat around the staff and the board may only cross over with his permission; attempts to negotiate the moat on one’s own bring a quick and sharp rebuke.

The founder barks; the board follows orders.  Mention of the risks this situation causes for the organization when the founder executive director does leave is totally ignored. The board cannot answer a question about anything—from clients served to money coming in to who are major donors—without looking to the executive director for the answer.  It could not sustain the organization while it did a search for a new executive director, nor has it made one step towards creating a succession plan for either a planned or emergency transition.  There is parking lot talk among some board members who have become increasingly unhappy about how things are going at the organization and with how the founder executive director is performing.  But all are too scared too say anything publicly.  Really?  And yet, this organization and mission are at grave risk of collapsing once the founder leaves. Is that truly what this founder wants? what the board wants?  Time to wake up and smell the coffee, folks.

And then there is Organization C, and you might be surprised just how common this scenario is:  founder establishes the nonprofit on his/her property—the basement, the guesthouse, the lot next door, etc.  As with Organization A, the founder leaves the position of executive director and migrates to the board.  The new executive director comes in and tries to run the organization, but everywhere she turns, there is the founder:  my property, my organization, my dream, MY WAY.  And like the spoiled child, things must be done her way or she will take her marbles home.  The founder and the board president bypass the executive director; the founder doesn’t like what she sees, she takes it to the board—her old cronies.  The board, blinded by the halo that seems to hang over all founders, regardless of whether deserved, views this as a problem with the executive director and not the situation it created by allowing the founder to hang around, fires the executive director.  And so it begins its path of hiring a series of unsuccessful executive directors.  When does the light bulb go off that maybe, just maybe, it isn’t possible to be that poor at hiring? When does the board ask whether there might be another reason for needing to dismiss executive director after executive director?  Time to step up to the plate, people.

A board’s loyalty must be to the mission, not a person.  It’s responsibility is to make sure that the organization has the capacity to do the very best job it can on delivering the promises of that mission.  To do that job, it cannot afford to be cowed by anyone.


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