Pass the Pepto Please

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 5th, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Those of you who know me, know that I love the nonprofit sector.  Some might even go so far as to say I’m a missionary for the sector.  But that would be inaccurate, as I am not out to “win” anyone over or convert them to my way of seeing things.  But I have knowingly volunteered and worked in this sector since what we then called junior high school.  In the many decades since then, I’ve held one and only one job in the for-profit sector:  in high school, I sold the mobiles I made to retail establishments and worked one holiday season in a gift wrapping shop.

I have always had reason to be proud of the sector of which I am a part, despite the scandals that are periodically uncovered, recognizing that the for-profit sector has no shortage of scandals.   Despite the stupidity of leaders, as the for-profit sector has its share of those.  Despite the fact that we are not a perfect sector—which no one could accuse the for-profit world of being, either.  Despite all of this, I’ve always believed that the vast, vast majority of people in the sector—those who are paid as well as those who volunteer—want to do good and do it well.  They may suffer from ignorance or egos that blind them; they may think they know what they should do but do not really, but they listen when educated.  They may make mistakes, but they are not evil.

But today, someone in the sector, who I don’t even know, turned my stomach in a way that I have been spared up until now.

It’s been an especially trying day, rife with nonprofit horror stories:

  • There was the executive director who failed to pay the organization’s withholding taxes, leaving the organization with an almost $500,000 bill owed the IRS—before penalties and interest.
  • There was the consultant leading an organization through strategic planning without having helped (or should I say forced?) the group to focus on what its mission really is, so the planning was going forward with multiple views of the mission of the organization.
  • Let’s not forget the board that allowed one board member to skewer plans to hire a consultant who the rest of the board and the executive director thought was awesome.
  • And there was the executive director who told the development director to ask the program director what her strategic priorities are.

But none of these are the ones that caused the disgust.

The disgust came when a colleague told me about an email she had received from a  former colleague who was bringing her up to date on his life.  The former co-worker began talking about the holidays and the vacation he and his wife had taken right after the new year, noting that his boss—the executive director—forbids him from taking a vacation in the summer.  His boss also forbids him from hiring permanent help, but allows him to work 11 hour days, six days a week for the summer.    Quoting from the friend’s email, “[My boss] does let me get a temp for six weeks then sends his favorite around to urge me to get everything done in 3 weeks to save money.”  My stomach was still feeling quite fine at this point.

But then it began to churn, and as I continued reading, my stomach reached a crescendo.  In the words of the email’s author:


On Friday 29 January my boss called me into his office at 4 PM. …. Then he told me that my job was being outsourced to an accounting firm.


I asked when this would happen and he said they were coming in on Monday, February 1. I got no severance, no vacation pay and my benefits ended on Sunday, January 31. “Of course I will pay you for today,” he said. I had started that day at 7:30 AM, so by 4:00 PM I had a full day in at work. For once I was leaving before 6:30.


I was numb, mostly from my chronic tiredness. But I was also relieved to be out of there after almost 3 years of misery. The reality of it set in when I woke up on Saturday morning. I will miss the people I worked with and supervised, but I will not miss my boss at all.


I offered to email him my passwords for all the sites we use, but they had me locked out of the network while I was being let go. I have all my passwords in password-protected files and I was going to unprotect the files…


The charity is about to default on a $12,000,000 mortgage and turn a property over to HUD. Cash flow stinks and everyone was worried. [The Excutive Director] likes to confuse the Board (packed with relatives and in-laws) and blame everyone else when the entire mess is his fault. He can’t lead, he can’t manage, and no one likes him. He is vulgar and coarse. The people I worked with fear him because you never know what he will do next.

While I absolutely hold the executive director accountable for his own egregious behavior as a leader and manager, I hold the board accountable for its failure to do its job.  But where to begin on that one?  It was not providing oversight of the executive director, nor taking on the responsibility to strategically build itself as an independent body as opposed to being a stacked body of relatives.  It was not executing its financial responsiblities if it allowed the organization to default on a $12 million mortgage, and probably failed in this arena by taking on the mortgage in the first place.  And the board wasn’t doing very well in the governance arena, at least as far as personnel policies go, and I would only assume other ares as well.

I also hold the employees of the organization accountable as well for their failure to hold the organization to a fair and humane treatment of its employees.  I have no idea what organization this is and, therefore, what its mission is.  But nonprofits have a moral responsibility to treat their employees with as much care and compassion as they treat their clients, as their employees are their most valuable asset.

One of the things that makes the nonprofit sector so special is the recognition that the parts—the staff and volunteers, the executive director and the board—are all equally vital to the successful delivery of the mission.  When that lesson is forgotten, and one person is wrongly empowered to be above and beyond the others, we lose our specialness, and thus we lose our ability to do good.  For in that moment, we have violated the very parts that make us who and what we are.  And that turns my stomach big time.

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.