Nonprofit Hires Business Executive as CEO…for a Brief Interlude

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Red flags

October 14, 2014;Las Vegas Sun (VEGAS INC)

How does the relationship between an executive director and the board of directors sour? At the beginning, there is excitement and a lot of love; you never read a press release that quotes the board president as saying, “Well, we did the best we could and so, this is who we’re got to live with for now.”

Instead, they usually say something like Raymond Wilmer, board president of the Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada (The Center) said when announcing the hiring of Bob Elkins as CEO. “I am proud to say it was a unanimous decision,” Wilmer said. “His background had proven leadership skills; plus he has had 30 years volunteering in the HIV community.” He also had for-profit business experience, an apparent major selling point to the board.

That was in September of 2013. Fast forward to April of 2014, and Elkins is no longer the CEO. What happened in seven months? Elkins is credited with having helped with a banner year in fundraising, including his own claim of having secured a gift of $250,000 from a single donor. All good, but…

The mis-step that led to his departure appears to have been an email Elkins sent criticizing another nonprofit for lack of diversity on its board. Elkins commented that the Southern Nevada Association of Pride, Inc. (SNAPI) only had older white gay men on its board and so did not reflect the diversity of the community it was serving. Apparently, at the time, the Center had said it was in negotiations to take over SNAPI, although the latter organization denied the rumor. Nevertheless, the interim CEO, Tom Kovach, would later state that Elkins left because “he stated positions that were his own and not the board’s.”

So Kovach, a board member, stepped into the breach temporarily and this was not the first time in the past 18 months Kovach has served as interim leader of the Center. In April of 2013, the Center had just moved into its new home, four times larger than its previous facility and then the board took a vote and demoted the long-standing executive director, Candice Nichols, to the role of Senior Director of Programs and Community Partnerships.

Nichols is still at the center, but although her leadership and involvement in the Center’s programming was heralded by everyone, the Center’s board had reportedly decided that they also needed someone with experience in business now that they had a new facility and were looking to expand programming. Elkins appeared to fit that bill, having been in a leadership position at AT&T for a number of years, but in the end, he breached good nonprofit protocols and the board ended up feeling felt that the difference between running a nonprofit and a for-profit was too great, and Elkins’ experience did not transfer well.

If you let go of two staff leaders in unceremonious fashion within the space of 12 months, one who had led for nine years and the other with significant business leadership experience, perhaps the problem is not with the CEOs—perhaps the problem is with the board and its lack of understanding. The dynamic of extremes in terms of what you want in a CEO—“We now want the exact opposite of the last guy”—is a mark of inadequate governance. Also, it just may be that this board has begun to exert a little too much influence in the day-to-day business of the Center and is not leaving the CEOs alone to do their work. Mr. Kovach, for example, had been the board president and led the charge to raise the money for the new facility. He was very quick to step in as interim not once, but twice. The board may need to check its dynamic with executive leadership.

The newly announced CEO of the Center is Michael Dimengo, who has a long history of experience with nonprofits. Working out the balance of power and leadership between the board and the CEO should be one of his first orders of business.—Rob Meiksins

  • Ted Ford Webb

    Déjà vu all over again.

    At the height of the AIDS crisis, I recruited the CEO of a national LGBT organization. You would know the name if I mentioned it.

    A very fine search committee, with a diverse mix of advocates, medical professionals, and a full LGBT spectrum, agreed on their top candidate – a grass roots organizer with strong nonprofit leadership experience. Believe it or not, another finalist was an AT&T executive! His motives were sincere – to join the cause – but we had tested him on the complexities of leading this very dynamic coalition and his business skills were no match for the assignment.

    To our great surprise, the Board rejected our recommendation and, over our loud protests, selected the AT&T executive. This was less a matter of process than it was the dynamics of a new movement. The majority of the Board resigned just before we made our recommendation. The new Board, fully rooted in corporate leadership, dismissed the work of the search committee as being, as one new board member put it, “navel gazing”, and selected someone who looked familiar to them. He lasted less than a year, with disastrous consequences for the organization.

    They were fortunate in that the search committee’s top candidate was willing to take the position when the AT&T person was let go. It turned out to be a powerful object lesson for the organization.

    How ironic to see such similar circumstances, 20 years later.

    Corporations continue to refine their process, Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, Quality Management and their ilk continue to squeeze out more productivity, often on the backs of their workforce. It is actually more complicated to bring about quality management in the nonprofit sector – workers who presume to have a say in how the organization operates, funders who impose conditions that may contravene the mission of the organization, volunteer board members who influence key decisions without studying the issues and clients who don’t behave like consumers – make it more difficult. But the nonprofit sector ought to be able to break these patterns. Good governance, transparency, and being ready to openly address the many conflicting interests that shape these positions is within reach if the will is there.

    And more efficiency and productivity is a good thing. Nonprofits should be adapting the better part of these corporate lessons, and perhaps the day will come when corporations will partake of the best nonprofit lesson – that thoughtful governance, in concert with a professional staff and engaged community, can achieve great and meaningful results, efficiently.

  • Sue

    This sort of thing is frustrating to watch as a young non-profit professional hoping to make the leap into executive leadership. I am seeing over and over again boards selecting business candidates with little non-profit experience over individuals who spend years in the sector. The worse is when it’s a “retired” business professional seeking to use their “skills” to “give back” in their “later years”. The mindset to operate a business is opposite of what it takes to run a non-profit. The same rules do not apply. Time and again I have seen cocky business managers get hired and barrel through the organization with a sleek new plan only to crash and burn a few months later. They disregard all warnings from staff who can clearly tell them why their plan will fail (mostly because the plan ignores the “basics” of the sector). Often staffers who give these warnings are fired for not “being on board” (happened to me once). The result is what happened here, a year later the executive bails and the long-time staffers devoted to the org (and huge assets) are gone as well. The non-profit has to start from scratch as everyone shakes their head figuring out where it went wrong. Don’t let your non-profit fall into this trap. Universities are dedicating entire programs to train the next generation of non-profit leaders who actually DO understand the dynamics of a non-profit, and even better, know how to navigate in a post social media world. Why take on an individual to lead an organization who sees their involvement as a favor or footnote to their retirement? Instead you could hire someone who has dedicated their entire career to the sector. Focus on developing leadership from within, that is what is lacking (and speaking as a young perfessional this is what I see as a detrimental). Board members need to readjust their HR objectives and non-profit needs to do a better job of recruiting board members who understand this.

  • Candice Nichols

    Just clarify, I have not been employed at the Las Vegas Center since February of 2014.

  • Aaron Chandler

    The board of the Las Vegas LGBT Center appears to have made a number of mistakes. One of these was hiring an Interim CEO – who was paid at a rate of nearly $200K/year, in Las Vegas, to run an org with a budget of $1.5 million/year – that the board, by their own admission, could not afford.

  • Aaron Chandler

    The board of the Las Vegas LGBT Center appears to have made a number of mistakes. One of these was hiring an Interim CEO – who was paid at a rate of nearly $200K/year, in Las Vegas, to run an org with a budget of $1.5 million/year – that the board, by their own admission, could not afford.