Oppressed Nonprofit Executives & References for the Unworthy: The Ethicist Weighs In

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Ethicist

Dear Nonprofit Ethicist,

Many staff and board members have left the organization on whose board I sit; they have left because of a highly dysfunctional executive director who does not want to be managed by anyone, “spins” information to her own ends, and uses every Sun Tzu tactic to extinguish efforts to make changes.

For the majority of her time as ED, the board has been in interpersonal strife or organizational crisis; there is high board turnover as a result. Since the board has so many people who are new to boards as well as to the organization, this ED basically runs the agency and controls the board. She does this in two ways: (1) by dictating to the inexperienced board members what their roles are and what they are not; and (2) by positioning herself as more oppressed than her board and staff. The underlying strategy here is to be able to, on any level, empower herself by making the other person appear ignorant. From this strategic home base, she can at any time begin delegitimizing anyone she perceives to be a threat—and this she does. There have been several “ugly” confrontations involving staff and board members being pushed out by her passive-aggressive tactics and masterful manipulation; the reasons for these ugly endings remain unclear—except in my case (I have since become a subject of these attacks).

This organization was once a world leader in its field; it was supported by government and used to consult on issues by media, academia, government, and others. Today the government that created the organization has little interest in it, and representatives no longer have time to attend its events. The only media that this organization gets is an occasional op ed (it is no longer contacted to give comments on events); instead of acting as consultants on governmental policy development, representatives now attend only as members of the public giving depositions. Politically and in the media, the agency has become basically irrelevant. Most people in the community don’t know of the organization, although in its own small circle it is valued and continues to provide the same services it has for many years, which is essentially public education. This ED has effectively crippled innovation and leadership, and in doing so frittered away the wellness of the organization. Those who have attempted to do basic things (such as position the board to truly understand operations as they relate to the strategic priorities or move toward stating organizational objectives to focus the work of the organization) are targeted on a personal level and ultimately pushed out. Since people want to protect the integrity of the organization, nobody speaks of this dysfunction. How can this be addressed without compromising the reputation of the organization? In our case, it seems to be a toss-up: try from the inside and risk having your reputation ruined, or accede to this person’s reign of control and warlike conflict that is bringing the agency closer each year to complete irrelevance. Can this situation be reversed?

No Fun in Dysfunction

Dear No Fun,

The executive director may or may not have been responsible for the organization’s decline, but abusive behavior and board subservience make it less likely that the situation will be reversed. If you want to try to turn things around, you will need to invest a lot of time in explaining the situation to new board members before the executive director can get to them. When you have one or two staunch allies to take your side and second your motions, announce to the board that the Emperor has no clothes—and keep it up. Still, this may not work. In Hans Christian Andersen’s story, the emperor suspected the truth of the matter but continued with his parade.


Dear Nonprofit Ethicist,

As the director of a small nonprofit, I recently received a request to write a letter of support for a grant being sought by a large organization with a reputation for chasing grant money and not being responsive to the needs of the community once they get it. I declined to write the letter and politely told them why. Word quickly spread throughout the community, and I am being told that I am the first to reject writing a support letter of request for any agency in our area. If I had provided the letter, I would have been supporting conduct that I do not find ethical; however, it sure would have been easier than the drama this has stirred up. I would make the same decision again, but I wonder what your thoughts are on this.

Odd Man Out

Dear Odd Man Out,

If you had misgivings about the organization’s responsiveness to the community, then you were right to decline, but perhaps you could have handled your relations with the aggrieved organization more tactfully. There is a difference between honesty and candor: honesty is essential; candor is optional. Less candor might have served you better. 

  • lynn eakin

    I have met two Executive Directors with behaviors and tactics as described by no fun in dysfunction. They are extremely determined to protect their position at all cost and other people’s well-being. An second step besides recruiting and aligning board members (which I agree is an essential step) Is for the Board to commission an external review. My bet is the same dysfunctionality is present among the staff – one set against the other and favourites of the day. The staff are also likely to be junior staff who don’t know what a dysfunctional organization is and when things go wrong think are made to think it is somehow their fault. I would bet there is no staff internally who dares challenge how things operate. It will not be a safe place. Be sure and hire a really seasoned consultant who will knows what they are looking at as they have to get below the strong story line. An external review conducted by the board is a good thing to do periodically anyway especially if the organization is not performing. It will be essential in convincing a Board it has enough information to fire the Executive Director. It will not be easy as attacks on you will get very personal but you may just save an organization and the staff.

  • David G Jones

    An interesting report; however it contains an utter mis-representation of “Sun Tzu” – which is not Machiavelli. Ping-fa (the original name for what is now called “Sun Tzu”) – is a methodology for issue resolution without conflict – therefore the exact opposite of the situation described here. My work on Ping-fa is here:

    http://www.slideshare.net/ShibumiMC/asst-press-release-01-2013

  • Julie Samkoff

    No one has mentioned the responsibility of the president of the board to conduct an annual evaluation of the executive director and to provide feedback in the interim, The president should ask for input from the rest of the board in an executive session which by definition excludes the executive director. This is one of many situation for which many board presidents are unprepared.