Sunday, September 30, 2012

Someone Has To Say It: The Nonprofit's Founder May Not Be the Best Executive Director or Board President Candidate (and Should Certainly Not Be Both)

When a nonprofit is founded by a single person often that person feels 'the right' to become the nonprofit's executive director or board president.  As I've said in other posts, in this blog, I get it.  The founder is passionate about the issue or cause the organization is going to work on, feels a certain natural claim to the leadership of the new nonprofit, and is likely a great public facing member of the team.  They carry in their person both the passion in a nonprofit's launch but too, the unique story of who began this nonprofit, and why or how the organization started.  This is powerful storytelling which we all know is powerful marketing and public relations.  All start ups must begin fundraising among all other operations (including building programs) and networking is a key component to launching all of this.  It is important that the story be told.  It is a great way to begin networking and introducing a new nonprofit to the community and world; and this individual is potentially a good member of the brand new organization's leadership team.

Is being the person who can tell the founding story of an organization the best person with the most qualifications and experience to lead a particular organization, though, such that it both grows in a healthy fashion and also delivers the organization's mission efficiently and effectively?  It's a mouthful sentence.  The goal for any nonprofit that wishes to succeed and grow is to best serve the beneficiaries of its mission statement while also operating the organization efficiently and ethically.  The mission is "..the thing" and the number one interest is the beneficiaries.  So, does passion and gumption qualify an individual to know how to best do these things if the goal is to succeed at the mission for the beneficiaries? Maybe.  Maybe not.  And, I think that you know this.

The founder is not necessarily the best person to either lead the day to day operations as the executive director nor is he or she necessarily the best candidate to lead the board.  If a founder is truly creating an organization that they believe that the community needs and can really solve some issues effectively - that person will do whatever is best to ensure the organization begins, grows, and exists to do more good another day.  The founder - the impetus - the carrier and instigator of the passion for the new start up's cause does whatever is necessary to best serve the beneficiaries of the organization's work.  Sometimes the founder is the person for one of the leadership jobs, but sometimes they aren't and a professional will acknowledge and even support facing this fact.  Perhaps they are "suited" (i.e. of the founder one probably can comfortably say, 'Joanna cares about the issue...' or 'Dave has a personal history with the organization's cause...' and these are important connections to the mission and the agency, itself) but are they the best candidate for either leadership job?  I am certain the founder is passionate about the cause.  But, is passion enough of a qualification for an executive director or the board president position?  Or, are there more qualifications a leader of the particular nonprofit should have in order to truly be the actual best candidate for the best interest of the future of the nonprofit?

It's uncomfortable to consider and certainly not easy to bring up or say out loud - but the fact is - if a nonprofit's operations, or if its leadership is encumbered by the weight of either a founder's self-entitlement or ego (or both), then the leadership is neither doing its job nor effectively able to.  It is the responsibility of the leadership to see and also acknowledge it if this is the case.  The organization, too, is in a poor position that could lead to it not growing or succeeding as well as it could.  If a nonprofit's leadership is operating always first considering the founder, then the mission statement and the beneficiaries are not the focus of decision making (as they should be).  Instead, whether they acknowledge it or not (whether the founder wishes to acknowledge it or not) often the first consideration goes through a filter ('Joanna won't like it if I or the board comes out against her on this' or 'Dave is the founder, so he knows best') and that has no place in best practices operations.

It might be new to a founder or a founding team to believe this, but it is the case that if your organization's mission is relevant and needed by the community (no other organization is solving a currently as yet unmet known need) there are many experienced, talented, even credentialed professionals who will be interested in volunteering (or the same can be said of potential staff, etc. when hiring becomes a possibility) with your nonprofit.  There are no requirements that a nonprofit, for example, have a Google board member serving in order to attract the cream of any profession's crop to either volunteer or work for your nonprofit.  You may think your new nonprofit is too small, or ask 'who am I to reach out and advertise for the best in this field'?  'Why would they respond?'  If the cause is real and the organization's going to serve that cause - there will be amazing candidates for your organization to consider, and depending on how well your organization is getting the word out about its launch, its mission, and who it's looking for to run it, some may be literally the best in their professional field.  Remember, Microsoft board members, AT&T executives, and even the highest up executives at say, the American Red Cross's executive offices often seek leadership roles in the community.  Talent is out there looking to get involved.  So, who would be better at serving your organization?  Someone with talent and experience or someone who of course did as important an achievement by founding the nonprofit but does not have the experience or know how to do as good a job as the other candidate?  Is founding a nonprofit enough to forgo bringing on the best qualified person to go forward?
In this day and age, no founder should be both a board president and an executive director.  Temporarily they might be, but only for a short limited amount of time until one of the positions is filled by a qualified finalist.  Not only is one person occupying both positions too much power held by one individual - it truly is the definition of a conflict of interest.  The board of directors of each 501(c)(3) (and other charities recognized by the IRS) are legally required by the Sarbanes Oxley Act to oversee and be personally accountable for the organization's operations and that includes overseeing the executive director and their performance and so the entire board must be able to fully execute their executive role.  The board is individually and as  a whole legally, per Sarbanes, responsible for all reporting to the federal government including fiscal oversight  and ensuring it's correct; but too, it must be certain that the operation is running in an accountable transparent fashion.  The word "transparent" has been a buzzword since before the law was a law because (as news story after news story can demonstrate) the federal and even state governments that oversee legally recognized business entities (including nonprofits) had had enough of not being able to either discern nor report to the public what agencies were operating on point per their mission, efficiently, or even effectively.  Congress (and the public (who are donors, volunteers, clients, etc. of these nonprofits)) had had enough of that - and so, in part due to this, Sarbanes came to be.

The law is not the only reason that a founder (or anyone) should occupy both the executive director position and the board president role.  If a donor considers giving to a nonprofit - they do so to achieve some accomplishment in the community at large - the goal of the recipient organization's mission and also the goal of its current programs and services.  If though, a nonprofit is led by one person mostly (as they occupy the head of the directors and also run day to day operations) it may not appear like a wise investment for the donor.  Decisions...all decisions (growth, strategy, beneficiaries' needs, policies, oversight, operations, etc.) are best handled by a team (preferably one with expertise, experience, successes, and even (if appropriate) credentials).  If, though, the team is not as strong as it could be (in its accomplishments or professional experience) or if the team is not empowered by its entire leadership to always base decisions on what is best for the beneficiaries and put them and the mission first (rather than a founder's perhaps inappropriate legacy and their expected or entitled position or their ego) - then why would that donor give to this nonprofit over another that is better run (i.e. more effective and efficient which empowered leadership is able to do)?  That other organization's potential - its future also looks better given it is unencumbered by the extra political quagmire (or even drama).  The other nonprofit will appear to a knowledgeable donor as the wiser investment, and well, may be.

Any one person who occupies both the head of the board and the executive director position should relieve themselves of one position (or both), or their board members should talk with them and ask them to do this.

You or they may protest to my blog post's points.  Someone might respond, "Well, Joanna has led us to many programs achievements, fundraising successes, and our operations are on budget and on track..." or "Dave has been nothing but enabling about the board and the other volunteers.  He is not a political quagmire for the organization's operations or future."  If these things are actually true (and also the full potential the organization could actually achieve) then fine and all is good enough at your agency.  If there are cracks showing, so to speak, though - and you know better than I - then there are questions for your organization's leadership to consider and answer.

Then don't take my word for what I've insisted, in this post.  Look at the actual real world.

All of these concerns, cautions, and recommendations are modern day, professional, nonprofit, best practices, and (as I repeat in this blog) are so because they have repeatedly worked (for all kinds of different nonprofits, of different sizes, in different geographic locations, etc.).  Best practices come to be (by someone innovating and then sharing with colleagues at other nonprofits what works) and then these methods are repeated and become accepted because they provide a nonprofit with the best possible outcome, at the best possible savings, in the least amount of time, ethically.  They are tried and determined to work.  These are efficient success-generating practices (which I work to impart to my readers through this blog).

The following news items are cautionary tales (real world news items that are the red flag warnings in our society), and are fairly well known and some are famously so, now.  Here are a few that involve (in all instances) the nonprofit's leadership not making decisions for the organization based first and foremost on the agency's mission statement and its beneficiaries first which is exactly the same as putting an individual (the founder) first in decision making.  Two of these actually involve founders being asked to step down or being found in the wrong by overseeing government.  More to my point - all of these news stories feature prominent long standing nonprofits that by virtue of being such were operating for a while with a founder as a key leader (even operating successfully for a long time) but by not making decisions in the best interests of the mission and its goals first always, this still bit these organizations in their rumps.

Three Cups of Tea Author and Nonprofit Founder Determined To Have Mismanaged Org After Year Long Investigation

A Look At the Susan G. Komen Experience... and be sure to look at the news article, in this post, titled "Komen Founder to Step Down As Chief Executive"

Susan G. Komen Organization's Experience Is The Devil In the Details (for Us and Not Just Komen)

A Real World Example Demonstrating Why Nonprofit's Mission Statements Are More Important Than the Almighty Dollar

News stories include (most recent first):

Komen Family Chooses a Successor to Brinker or So They Say

Nike chooses to sever its ties with Livestrong

Lance Armstrong cuts formal ties to Livestrong

AP source: Armstrong 'sorry' to Livestrong staff 

Livestrong responds to Armstrong's Oprah Interview: 'Disappointed', but grateful, too 

Livestrong Tweaks Logo To Move Past The Lance Armstrong Scandal

Whether a nonprofit's leadership is willing to see and also acknowledge it or not, the organization's founder can be a real impetus to a nonprofit's capabilities or worse - its success and greater potential.  Seeing and acknowledging an issue is better than not.  We all know this to be true.  Too, the sooner this occurs the better for the nonprofit's organizational health but more importantly the better for an organization's beneficiaries and meeting their needs well (as demonstrated sadly well by Susan G. Komen's recent news (see above)).  It can't happen soon enough.

Having said what I have in this post - of course, most founders are qualified to play key roles in the organization.  My next blog post, The Roles A Nonprofit's Founder May Hold During the Life Cycle or Growth of the Organization is about what qualifications an organization should look for in each of its leadership roles, how a nonprofit can go about recruiting and finding the best possible candidates (which occasionally may be the founder), and which nonprofit roles a founder can best fill and at which stages of a nonprofit's lifetime.


Anonymous said...

Its unfortunate that you feel that way, because there are millions of founders of organizations that took an organization to great heights. Why certain individual feel that a founder, who carries the vision and the mission is suddenly unable to take the organization to the next level is beyond me. I've seen first hand how boards "swear" they can do it without the founder and they fire the founder and the organization goes down hill. A founder wanting to be part of what they gave birth has nothing to do with "ego." It's like telling a mother "thanks for the money you spend on baby items, and all the effort you put in and the pain you endure, but now that you had the baby, you're not qualified to take care of the baby, but "we" are." No one can carry your vision. People can attempt to, but every person has a God given mission on earth and God never gave anyone person the authority to decide when a person's mission end. Most likely you will not publish this, but nevertheless, it state. Unless, you have kids you will never know what it is to carry and baby and have it taken from you.

Arlene M. Spencer said...

Dear Anon,
Thank you for your comment. I hope that you read the entire post.

The post's title says the founder "...may not be the best executive director or board president...". It does not say the founder is never the best candidate for these two specific positions.

I agree with you that it must be very painful to have grown anything and "..have it taken from you". I empathize with anyone in that position.

I still assert, as well, that (if you read my points in this blog post) it is not always in the nonprofit's best interest to keep a founder in an exec position simply or only because they created the organization IF they are not qualified or capable of taking the organization to its full potential and achieve what is in the best interest of the organization's beneficiaries (who are the ones who count most, always, even more than the founder). Why? Read the post.

Thank you, again.