Executive Director Surprise!

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Philanthropy seems to me to have become simply the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow creatures. — Oscar Wilde

In the painful vein of help gone horribly wrong, the roots of this story can be said to lie in good intentions — good intentions, plus the tendency of foundations to pathologize (and sometimes euthanize) their grantees.

On October 15, when Venture Communities Executive Director Leeza Gibbons walked into a presentation by consultants hired by her organization at Catharsis House (the headquarters of Venture Communities in Baltimore, and a community landmark); her eyes were red and she looked shell-shocked. More than 100 community leaders and foundation representatives buzzed in the main room after hearing the recommendations from a six-month board committee on social ventures. Gibbons had just been told she was being let go.

Lori Rock, Venture Communities” new board chair, stood at the front of the room next to a screen, beaming. “The board just met with our great executive director, Leeza Gibbons, who — let me just say — is a fabulous nonprofit manager with a great future. We have just presented her with a plaque honoring her eight years of service, and I’m pleased to announce that we have awarded her, and the four great staff who have been on Leeza’s management team, stipends to attend an executive management program at Stanford University’s Center for Social Innovation.” As Rock glowed, Gibbons looked sick, and her management staff in the second row seemed confused.

”I’ll bet you’ll learn a thing or two about time management at Stanford; you will be sorely missed!” the smiling chair joked. “I know this seems sudden, but the new executive committee was so excited about these changes, we couldn’t wait to get going. Stepping in to continue Leeza’s work will be a hard act to follow, so for six months we’ll have an interim director, Lenore Berisha.”

Leeza stood up slowly and said, “Could I say something?” looking as though she had swallowed a raw onion whole, her eyes teary and pleading.

There was an uncomfortable pause; clearly this part wasn’t planned, and everyone looked at Rock.

Suddenly, the projector turned on and began displaying a PowerPoint slide:

VENTURE COMMUNITIES

GOING-TO-SCALE CAPACITY BUILDING PLAN:

INTERIM DIRECTOR LENORE BERISHA DURING SIX-MONTH REORGANIZATION

BYLAW CHANGE RIGHT-SIZES BOARD TO FIVE

SOCIAL ENTRPRENUERSHIP RETREAT

FINALIZE SALE OF CATHARSIS HOUSE TO BUILDCO LLC.

The security guards picked the same moment to bring in boxes containing the personal items of the management team and set them before the ousted staffers. Gibbons spoke in a quavering voice like a hostage forced to tape a confession. “I just . . . want to say that . . . I’m grateful for the opportunity. . . . I know that Venture Communities will do great. . . .”

Rock began applauding during Gibbons’s next pause, and the whole room rose in a standing ovation, led by the board that 10 minutes earlier told her she was through.

Could Gibbons have seen this coming? Could she have headed it off? Did she wish she had an employment contract that guaranteed a severance payment?

The Going-to-Scale Capacity Building Plan had its start as one of several organizational assessments offered to grantees of the Mammon Foundation. Just one year earlier, Venture Communities was a highly regarded $3-million-a-year social-service and housing organization with a stable board and staff.

As part of its Going-to-Scale Nonprofit Capacity Building Initiative, Mammon program officers had informal conversations with several longtime grantees. For Venture Communities, it was a chatty coffee shop meeting between Gibbons and Brent Schreiber of the Mammon Foundation.

”Leeza, you know Venture Communities is amazing. You have really built a great organization. When I think about when you were still in that gray house on Franklin Avenue! I have to tell you that the Mammon Trustees think Venture is positioned to make the next major step up, you really are. And the foundation would be willing to make a much larger long-term commitment — probably three times what you have been getting. The trustees have learned that solid business planning is a key to success, so first we would want to see Venture Communities and its board go through a visioning process. If this is something you think Venture would be interested in, Mammon would pay for it.”

From what seemed like a casual start, the Mammon Foundation underwrote a one-year consulting engagement by Attilla & Associates, based on a metrowide Mammon Foundation plan the Venture Communities” board and staff knew nothing about.

The Mammon Foundation’s fourth-generation board members had excitedly embraced the ideas of social entrepreneurship and nonprofit capacity building, especially its new chair Poe Ridley, the 26-year-old grandson of legendary patriarch Vance Ridley.

Poe Ridley looked at the broad landscape of nonprofit and voluntary organizations in Baltimore — many of which had been started and/or supported by his family for years — and saw low pay, inefficiency, and duplication. “Never have so many people worked so hard with so much compassion and had so little to show for it than in the social sector of the greater metro area” was a frequently cited quote from the Mammon Foundation chair. “You deserve more, and so do we.”

That was the start of Mammon’s ambitious reform effort, which was well received by metro-area nonprofits. Ridley told community organizations that they deserved reliable general-operating support, better salaries, and money for capital; they just needed sensible business plans, and the rest would follow. And if they were interested, Mammon could help with that too.

The key to young Ridley’s strategy was a master consulting arrangement with Attilla & Associates, charged with implementing the Going-to-Scale Capacity Building Initiative with 11 different metro organizations. Rumors of forced mergers and mission changes were circulating, but still only rumors.

The October 15 community presentation at Catharsis House had been greatly anticipated; separate teams of five management staff and six board members had been working for months and would present their reports. Both staff and board had worked closely but independently with Attilla & Associates, which Gibbons found odd, but the consultants had given her management team so many planning and research tasks that she hadn’t given it much thought.

Now, as she stood next to her board chair and acknowledged the applause, she saw Ridley and Mammon Foundation trustees and staff in the back row. In a much firmer voice, with a sense of conviction that made it clear she wasn’t going anywhere, Gibbons said, “And Lori, as long as I have the floor, let’s pause this agenda, so I can ask the good people here: how much do you really know about the Mammon Foundation?”

In a word, Gibbons’s performance at Catharsis House was cathartic. Gibbons was a natural at handling audiences, and she spent the next hour leading a group discussion using Attilla & Associates’ own charts to create a network map of the Mammon Foundation’s connections and interventions — which was not a pretty sight.

Eight months on, the metro situation is more interesting than ever. Gibbons is long gone from Venture Communities but seems happy enough. She now runs a nonprofit called the Philanthropy Project, which has as its idealistic mission the reform of philanthropy. Needless to say, without the support thus far of the Mammon Foundation.

Phil Anthrop is a consultant to foundations in the G8 countries.