Painful Executive Transitions: A Founder Suddenly Finds Himself with Co-directors

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August 22, 2016; Project Q Atlanta

Over the last week, we have noticed a number of stories about demotions or resignations of long-term nonprofit leaders and founders. These can be very painful and divisive, as many of us know from personal experience. This is one of those stories in its most bare-bones form, with a little interpretation.

In Atlanta, Rick Westbrook, the co-founder and executive director of Lost-n-Found Youth, a support program for homeless LGBT young people, was demoted last week to outreach director. At the same time, the board created two new leadership positions, operations director and programs director, which were filled by others in the organization, presumably creating a leadership team from above.

Creating teams from above can be a very risky endeavor. This move fits as part of a classic pattern related to phases in the development of organizations. The language used here to explain and describe the change reflects the need of some, on the one hand, to formalize systems and the longing of others to maintain the organization as a trusted “family” of sorts. These patterns of organizational growth and development can provide a guide for those struggling with pivotal transitions, preventing them from personalizing issues or making moves that overcorrect, sometimes unnecessarily driving away valuable staff.

The first phase of development tends to be informal and dynamic; this is the period during which the need for the organization is proven and the vibrancy of the mission attracts supporters, including volunteers and funders. The second stage is when systems are built to contain and account for all of that activity.

This transition, unless it is balanced, can feel sometimes like a struggle of efficiency and accountability versus mission and heart, with people taking sides. Case in point, the Lost-n-Found board said in a statement that the reorganization would “create more efficiency and effectiveness in our operations.” But Westbrook’s supporters have taken to social media in protest, saying the move tears at the heart and soul of the nonprofit. Descriptions of Westbrook cast him as a classic founder, leading an organization that has grown quickly since it started three years ago.

The statement reads:

On Thursday, August 18, the Lost-n-Found Youth Board voted to reorganize the leadership structure into three new roles to create more efficiency and effectiveness in our operations. Rick Westbrook assumes the title of Co-Founder and Director of Outreach. Clayton Skinner, formerly Chief Operating Office, is now Director of Operations, and Brittany Garner is the new Director of Programs.

Brittany Garner, who possesses a Masters in Social Work, will oversee the programs of the organization that involve counseling and treatment. Clayton Skinner, an attorney, will oversee the operations of the organization focusing on budgets, requisitions, strategy, policies and procedures.

Rick’s notable stewardship of LNFY and steadfast dedication to the metro region’s homeless LGBT youth is unquestionable. He has been the driving force for much of this organization’s development and has drawn much needed attention to an issue that had largely gone unnoticed.

Over the years, the role of Lost-n-Found Youth has significantly grown and expanded. Sadly, we have seen an increase of LGBT youth on the streets. We have witnessed the life altering devastation of getting kicked out of a parent’s house simply because of your sexuality. LNFY social workers have been on the front lines to stop suicide attempts and get people’s lives back on track. We have helped hundreds of young people who were left homeless and abandoned by their families with nowhere to turn for guidance and assistance.

To meet the growing and diverse needs of our community, we have grown and expanded as well. In addition to the new leadership roles, we’ve hired four new house managers who are all trained social workers. We recently kicked off a new $1.1 million capital campaign for the Juniper Street building. This 5,900 square-foot youth center and transitional housing facility will triple our capacity to help local youth get off the streets.

One thing is certain – the critical mission of LNFY is bigger than one individual. It truly does take a village to keep our young people safe and off the streets.

As the co-founder of Lost-n-Found Youth, Rick started us on this journey to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in our community and we will never lose sight of his vision. That’s why he will remain with LNFY; his salary and benefits are unchanged. In his new role, he will continue engaging the community and the youth to ensure we have the funds to operate and serve the needs of our LGBT youth.

One observer says, essentially, “it ain’t over till it’s over,” and that the board may yet revisit this decision. Five board members resigned the day after the decision was announced. The success of the reorganization depends upon how the transition evolves and how the three staff directors feel about one another and conduct themselves. Shared executive leadership, as we all know, takes high levels of trust and communication, and a triumvirate is always challenging, but the strength of shared purpose can overcome even the most flatfooted of moments.—Ruth McCambridge