The ideal transition for a nonprofit leader is planned, transparent and voluntary.
A leader can give vision, network and stability to a crucial mission. But if you agree organizational sustainability must go beyond any one person, every nonprofit board and staff should get comfortable thinking and planning for a world with a different leader. Good leaders leave them wanting more.
Of course, that’s not what always happens.
Even under the best circumstances, a leader so wrapped in mission and passion can outlast their utility. There are many worse circumstances. Small faults in leadership can compound into toxic workplace cultures over time. Worse still, nonprofit boards can make hiring mistakes, putting the wrong person in at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. Nonprofit missions can be held back by bad actors.
If you’re on a nonprofit board or you work at a nonprofit or are otherwise an important nonprofit stakeholder, what do you do if you’re in one of these situations?
How do you remove a nonprofit’s executive director?
To better understand the best practices, Generocity built on existing reporting and had a conversation with two perspectives: University of Pennsylvania Adjunct Professor of Law Fernando Chang-Muy and Black and Brown Workers Cooperative cofounder Shani Akilah. [Editor’s note: the video of the full conversation is included at the end of this article.]
Chang-Muy, who prefers a hands-on approach to academia, has deep knowledge of the inner-working of the legal and labor law implications of removing an executive director. Akilah is one of the region’s most influential voices on workers’ rights and in particular haas been active in organizing against toxic workplaces in the social services in Philadelphia.
It’s worth saying the obvious: not every disagreement you have with an executive director is cause for removal. Disagreeing about vision or styles or simply wanting to try something new: these can be healthy and normal reasons for a board member or an employee to move on. That isn’t particularly strange, unusual or problematic.
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That’s not what this article is about.
Rather, this is meant to help point you in the direction if you feel something far worse is happening: that an executive director is sapping organizational value, producing a toxic workplace or, even worse, doing something fundamentally criminal.
This is not legal advice. Consult an attorney — or contact Black and Brown Workers Collective for advice. But there are some agreed-upon steps to take.
Step #1: Challenge your assumptions
If you feel uncomfortable about behavior, seek an ally for understanding the context of your concerns. This could be a fellow employee or a fellow board member, or a close contact at a similar organization. You can do this discretely and see this as level-setting: is this a problem or am I over-reacting? Challenge yourself, and seek honest feedback from others. Don’t rush to judgment.
Chang-Muy reminds that the removal of anyone from their employment is a serious step, so it should not be taken lightly. But you ought not let this process drag out. Testing your assumptions might be done over a period of weeks, not years.
Consider if there are similar situations at other nonprofits you know. “How did we even get to this point?” said Chang-Muy.
Step #2: Document the problem
Akilah advises: trust your gut. If you think something is wrong, you just may be right. But you do want to have evidence or concrete examples.
Akilah offers a simple remedy for both checking yourself and for gathering examples: start an incident log. This can be a private spreadsheet or other document. Track the day, time, what happened, how it made you feel and who witnessed it. Back-date when possible. Be specific.
This is when you must determine if this is an isolated problem between an employee that should move on, or if there is something more serious and widespread. Chang-Muy suggests you ask yourself: “What’s the difference between burnt-out employee and problematic leader?”
From the incident log: Do any patterns emerge? This is the stage at which you might first consider contacting legal counsel. Akilah also recommends effective government entities like the Human Relations Commission from the City of Philadelphia.
Step #3: Engage the executive director (if appropriate)
This is a particularly fraught step, and its necessity varies widely depending on what the root problem is and who you are. Power dynamics are at play. If you have a close working relationship with the executive director and some leadership (say, if you are on the board, or if you’re in a leadership position at the organization), you should confront the executive director with your concerns to gauge.
Step #4: Broaden the coalition
Whether you confront the executive director to no avail or whether that step feels out of your reach, find additional allies. Among the staff or your fellow board members: are there others you can consult to find if there is a pattern beyond your own experiences?
If you feel unsafe or uncomfortable with any, it can be OK to focus where you feel trust. But this, too, is tricky. It can turn to factionalism; Be wary of those who motivated for the wrong reasons. Your incident log and other steps will prove illustrative. Trial an off-site or private gathering to confirm the integrity of your concerns.
“There is strength in numbers,” said Akilah.
Board members: It may be important to contact staff members, depending on the circumstances, to gauge staff support. Depending on the size of the organization, human resources will need to be engaged.
Staff members: It will be crucial to engage the nonprofit’s board, which officially holds the supervisory role over your executive director. Start with a trusting board member.
Through it all, remain focused on the most important point — the mission of your nonprofit, not petty grievances.
Step #5: Make a final determination
Board Members: Look at the contract. Employees: Look at the staff manual. What are reasons for discharging any employee, especially an executive director. Is there an established process? Are there union or other legal constraints? The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, for example, is an at-will employment state.
At this point, staff will need to have the full engagement of the board of directors. Draft a letter documenting your concerns and make it clear you have lost faith in the executive director. Get signatures from as many staff members as who agree. Do not exert undue pressure on staff members who do not agree, but this letter carries greater weight the higher percentage of staff members who sign.
Akilah advises that this is another tricky moment. A common criticism of some nonprofits is that an executive director lacks genuine board oversight. Ultimately nonprofit boards do have a fiduciary responsibility for this oversight. It’s imperative to go through the proper board channel, notes Chang-Muy, and this may take time — but depending on the severity, this likely should be days or weeks, not months.
Akilah notes that groups like Black and Brown Workers Cooperative and the Human Relations Committee are outside supporters, and media outlets and journalists can be valuable to amplify credible accusations that are thought to be being ignored.
Still, the board has to make the final determination: are the offenses worthy of termination? If not, the board must think thoughtfully about engaging staff and discretely advising the executive director. Assuming that if the situation has reached this level it is serious enough for action, then this turns from discovery to the execution phase. The board will likely form a subcommittee to move more quickly.
Step #6: Build a plan
Assuming you care about your nonprofit’s mission, consider the ramifications of the removal of your executive director. What are the administrative responsibilities? Who will lead the search for a replacement? Who will fill in temporarily? What are the most important stakeholder relationships, including funders, partners and allies that work directly with the executive director?
Once this work is done, then the committee moves forward with developing the formal separation agreement and meeting with the executive director.
#7 Prepare for the aftermath
Chang-Muy in particular points that a nonprofit must plan for the day after the executive director is removed. This will vary considerably about the circumstances of why this director was removed. For meaningful transgressions, this will require a true crisis communications plan. Stakeholders and your broader community should be alerted if there were financial, gender, racial or other transgressions of consequence.
If instead this is a matter of encouraging a transition to a new leadership, this transition can be done more discretely. Ultimately the point is to fulfill your commitment to your community and organizational mission vision and values.
Leaders work in service of mission.
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