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Real responses to real-life questions

Jack Nokes, an independent nonprofit consultant in Austin, Texas, offers his response to the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the author's personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

Can I Be Both a Nonprofit Employee and a Board Member?

The way this situation unfolded wasn’t my plan. I have a child with Asperger’s, and along with another mother, started a nonprofit that offers a unique model of peer and parent support groups challenged by this syndrome. We had both struggled to find help and felt passionate about our nonprofit's mission.

I was a founding board member, and in those early days, I also handled all the fundraising. To my surprise, I found that I’m very good at fundraising, especially when it comes to building relationships with donors. Today, I raise about 90 percent of all the funds we need to run our programs.

In the past year, it was decided the nonprofit needed a proper executive director. We were growing and my co-founder moved to another state. I was not on the board's search committee and I don’t much like their choice (they interviewed ONE applicant and she seems inexperienced to me.) Nonetheless, I wanted to cooperate, so I stayed on the board as a non-voting member and took a formal, part-time position as the only funds development employee.

To jump to the point, this arrangement doesn’t appear to be working. The new executive director seems to resent my direct line of communication with board members and she is always micromanaging my fundraising development plans.

I admit I am feeling angry and unappreciated. I want to continue fundraising for the organization I love, but does my presence on the board make that too impractical? I was here from day one and my fundraising keeps this place alive. I am still passionate about our cause, but I feel hemmed in and stressed out.

Any tips on how I can best handle this situation?

Jack says ...

The short answer to your question of whether one can be an employee and a board member of a nonprofit organization is “yes." While not the norm, it is a common practice for a CEO or executive director to also be a member of the board, (at least in the US) sometimes as a voting member and sometimes ex officio without vote.

However, that short answer does not give a solution to your difficult situation. I read this as a variation of "founder’s syndrome", which is what happens when an organization’s founder struggles with a transition in responsibilities and/or executive powers. Like most founders, you got involved to address a societal need, one you feel passionate about. In your case, the passion stems from your personal experience with your child, and that makes your circumstance even more fraught. In addition, your "ownership" of the organization is even greater since you continue to drive almost all of the fund development (and the relationships you have cultivated.) It’s no wonder that you have these feelings of being angry, under-appreciated, hemmed in and stressed out.

The other side to this is that the board (including you) has put the executive director in a “no win” situation. Even if she is competent, dedicated and a hard worker, she cannot have your level of experience and passion for the organization’s mission. On paper she’s been given the bottom-line responsibility for the organization’s success, and yet you are still in charge of the key fund development role. I would be surprised if she’s not feeling threatened and second-guessed by you, and resentful toward the board for putting her in this situation.

So what to do? First I suggest that you explore the source of your feelings. It strikes me as odd that the board would not put the founder on the search committee for the organization’s first executive director. Are you angry with the board for excluding you and pursuing a process you didn’t like? Perhaps you regret not being more assertive and asking to be involved in the search. You might even regret not applying for the job. Is turning over the day-to-day harder than you had imagined? Does any of this punch emotional buttons related to your child’s Asperger’s? Is genuine dislike or disrespect for the executive director what’s bothering you? You might also ask yourself whether you would have bumped up against these same feelings regardless of whom the board hired as executive director.

Once you have examined and clarified where your frustration is coming from, it might make you feel more in control to address your feelings head on. Find a good time and place — perhaps outside the office — to be upfront with your executive director to discuss what you're feeling about this arrangement. Are there ways to communicate better? Is her micromanaging your work her way of saying that she needs to "learn the ropes" from you? Can your roles regarding fund development be clarified or reconfigured? And what about her concern with your communications with board members? Are there ways to reassure her by being more transparent when you deal with the board? Maybe you can find a way to be the director’s advocate as a board member.

If you and the executive director cannot come to a better understanding concerning your arrangement, then it may be time to involve the board. After all, the board had a hand in getting both of you into this mess, so maybe they can help you out of it. A wise member or group of members may be able to mediate or find a new arrangement more suitable to both you and the executive director. I would hope that it doesn’t get down to a "one of us has to go" standoff, which could lead to ugliness all around. The board should be motivated to make this work; they clearly value your passion and experience. Plus, the last thing they want to do is go through another search.

You have my admiration for caring so much about an important mission, and I am sorry things have gotten off track for you. I know you are crucial to the work your organization does, and I hope you can turn things around in a way that makes you happy and gratified continuing your good work.

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