Founder Problems Predictably Tear This Nonprofit Limb from Limb

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September 8, 2016; Portland Tribune

Not every situation calls for a nonprofit response. In fact, sometimes it may be the exact wrong move. Consider the case of Tamara Rubin, who was ousted in August from her position as executive director of the Lead Safe America Foundation by the board president, the treasurer, and their lawyers.

Rubin founded the nonprofit after lead contamination affected some of her children during construction at her house. Rubin is a passionate advocate, and her dedication to the cause is personal and deep, but she may not be much of an administrator. On the foundation’s Form 990 from 2013, which was filed over a year late in October 2015 (on the same day the nonprofit’s 2014 return was signed), Rubin apparently attached a letter to the IRS to explain that any problems on the form were the result of the the chaos that the lead poisoning of her children had created for her.

While we understand it is the responsibility of the Board of Directors to file the return if the volunteer staff is unable to do so, our board members have not historically been involved with the day-to-day operations and are mostly not geographically accessible as well, so they were not able to step in and file the return in my absence. We are working on shifting this paradigm for future years, and our current board is now more involved and active than in previous years.

She also listed herself as providing more than 60 hours of volunteer labor weekly. This, of course, only completes the picture of a nonprofit that is its own worst enemy. If the founder never manages to share out the work and passion for the cause, the organization will likely remain immature; this, then, makes it an increasingly uncomfortable match for good board members. Six members have left the board in the past year, including Rubin’s husband. The two board members who pushed to remove Rubin are relatively new.

The foundation is currently being investigated by the Oregon Department of Justice, which could bring a civil suit against the organization, its board members, or Rubin herself. At issue is the financial condition of the all-volunteer organization, which is reportedly around $90,000 in debt.

Kelly Fisher, a friend, wrote, “What I don’t understand is: If we abandon Tamara, what else is there to save? From the point of view of anyone who’s been helped by the foundation, and anyone who’s donated, Tamara IS the foundation, and the foundation IS Tamara. The terms and conditions being proposed right now may not be particularly unusual for lawyers, but they are sickeningly unfair to anyone who knows even a little bit about Tamara’s history with the organization.”

As NPQ has unstintingly reminded its readers, not every social change initiative requires a separate nonprofit structure. For some efforts, a nonprofit just adds layers of work that may seem immediately unimportant to a mission-focused founder or founding group, and that is a good way to walk into a whole mess of trouble. If Tamara truly is the organization, it’s not an organization. Better the group should get themselves a fiscal sponsor and a good consultant who will help walk them through what kind of governance and operational structures they will need and can handle as time goes on.

Meanwhile, remember: No husbands or wives on boards.—Ruth McCambridge