Dear Nonprofiteer, The Board president wants my head because her husband wants my ass: what to do?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

Five years ago the nonprofit Board and a group of Past Presidents of our management association came together to hire my partner and me to manage it. The association had basically gone bankrupt due to the Executive Director’s lack of good judgment. My business partner is a highly respected Past President of the organization and we were both members at the time.

In our time as EDs we've grown sponsorship from 6 companies to 31, increased membership by 250% and revenue by 400%. We have been commended by members and Past Presidents who have been with the organization for years. However, our Board is now made up of people new to the organization (due to the lack of member volunteers), and they were not there during the troubled times.

The current President came onto the Board soon after we started. She never said much and always brought her new husband to all membership functions, though he wasn't and isn't a member. She was always friendly until about a year and a half ago, when she started ignoring us. I traced this back to her new husband's having talked to me at one of our after-hours members' mixers. At another event I got up to take a picture and she physically removed my purse and laptop from my seat and sat it on the floor away from the table. She took my seat, where I had already been sitting and drinking. She was late to all events, unfriendly and unappreciative.

This year she became our President and she is a complete control freak. At our most recent conference, I said hi to her and she wouldn’t look at me. She barks orders at us through email like we are her personal secretaries. She has been holding private meetings behind our backs and making decisions we feel we should be privy to. We know she is scheming to get rid of us, despite our exemplary record.

One of the Past Presidents who still serves on the Board has told us the President wants to bid out our job. We recently agreed to take on more duties for no additional money, duties which leave the Board with nothing to do, though we don’t feel this arrangement is in the association's best interest. Our Board source has been telling us bits and pieces of what is happening: two people on the board are very happy with us, while the other three are the President and her two cronies.

We feel the President has a personal vendetta against me. I believe she is insecure and it infuriated her that her husband was talking to me. He has the reputation of a scoundrel! Of course I can’t prove this, and I would be embarrassed to even suggest it out loud, but that is my gut feeling.

Is there anything we can do? I feel like the progress we've made is going to go down the drain! As I said, we have glowing reviews and our track record is great. The only thing the Board can come up with as a reason to replace us is “We want to take it to the next level”, but they can’t even describe what that is. We are a small and poor state, so you can only grow so much!

Sincerely, Stabbed in the Back

Dear Stabbed:

First things first: it doesn't really matter why the Board president wants to get rid of you. You serve at the pleasure of the Board and if that pleasure has changed you're out, period end of sentence. But that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do.

First, if the Board is elected from the membership and it's time for elections, you can reach out to your supporters within the membership and ask them to take on the mantle of Board members to save you and the association from disaster. It's not strictly kosher but a "lack of member volunteers" is a serious critique of an association, no matter how well-run otherwise, and you should be seeking to correct this anyway.

Or, if the Board is self-selecting, you should arrange to meet with each Board member individually. Again, this is something that's just plain good practice for an Executive Director, and you (or the pair of you) can explain it just that way when you call each Board member to schedule lunch, dinner, breakfast or midnight snack. Use each of these meetings to impress on the Board member your desire to do the best job possible, and your concern that there is some dissatisfaction with your work. Then shut up and listen to what they have to say.

Don't omit the Board president from this round of courtesy calls. Call her (and keep calling her til she takes the call: this shouldn't happen by e-mail) and say that you've recently detected in her behavior signs of dissatisfaction with your work and that you'd like to meet with her to learn how you can correct anything you may have unintentionally done to offend or dismay her. Be obsequious, but get the meeting, and go to it (as to the other meetings) with your partner. Then shut up and listen to what she has to say.

If the Board members or the President identify anything concrete they'd like you to change, change it. If they continue to say nothing more specific than "take the organization to the next level," press each of them on what s/he means by that. What is his/her vision of the organization in a year, in three years, in five? If what you hear sounds like something you can do, tell each and every one of them just that and stress how much you'd like to be given the chance to demonstrate your abilities once again.

If they remain vague, or if their visions of the organization seem to you unrealistic, inappropriate or criminal, then prepare your letter of resignation and submit it: it's better to quit than be fired.

If, however, your meetings with members of the Board suggest that you may retain the Board's confidence by a 3-2 majority (perhaps the President's "cronies" just need to learn more about the history through which you've guided the group), then ask each sympathetic Board member to secure a place for you two EDs on the next Board meeting agenda. At that meeting, lay out your strongest case for remaining at the helm of the group--based not just on what you've done, but on what you're going to do. The Board will go into executive session after you've spoken, and when they emerge you'll know whether or not you've succeeded in saving your job.

Again: don't think about the Board president's creepy husband, or the possibility that she's jealous of his attention to you. Focus on doing and keeping the job, and that means countering her passive-aggressive behavior with complete frankness on your part.

The Nonprofiteer has found that saying, "Have I done something to offend you?" or "I'm detecting some hostility here; how can I defuse it?" will force people either to own their concerns or to drop them. So give it a try, and let us know what happens.

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    Nonprofiteer

    The Nonprofiteer is Kelly Kleiman, principal of NFP Consulting, which provides Board development, strategic planning and fund-raising services to charities and philanthropies. Through her consulting practice and in her guise as The Nonprofiteer, Kelly has spent the past 25-plus years helping small and mid-sized nonprofits organize themselves better and raise more money. These days she focuses especially on helping them use high-skill volunteers. Kelly is also a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; in the alternative press; on websites including the Huffington Post; and on the radio, including the BBC and WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. She and her fellow "Dueling Critic" Jonathan Abarbanel present a weekly podcast of their reviews of Chicago theater at DuelingCritics.net. Earlier in her career she was dean of admissions of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and Executive Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and practiced real estate and zoning law with the firm of Rudnick &amp; Wolfe. Kelly holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago. She was a founding Board member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits and also served for 5 years on the Board of the Association for Women Journalists–Chicago. She can be reached ("Dear Nonprofiteer . . .") at KellyNFP@yahoo.com.

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