Nonprofit Gets a Natural Limits Lesson and Terminates New Executive

February 9, 2017; Austin American-Statesman

There’s nothing wrong with taking a nonprofit leap of faith, so long as you have given yourself a way out. In this case, though, there were some mismatches of hope to reality that are now just a bit clearer to all concerned…and can be taken as a matter for consideration by others in similar straits.

The Bastrop Museum and Visitor Center in Texas hired its first executive director a little more than a year and a half ago. It had invested a lot of hope and money in the importance of that position to the creation of a more stable future, so it hired a longtime former children’s museum director from Brooklyn, New York, to boost visibility and fundraising capacity. But now, the museum’s board of directors has decided to eliminate that position because it is unsustainable financially, a conclusion which all agree upon.

“We hired above our pay grade because of her experience and what she could offer us,” said board president Dan Hays-Clark. “We cannot as a nonprofit organization sustain that salary that we brought her in on.”

Maybe this risk was one the organization had to take. The board was likely adhering to the platitude “you get what you pay for”—which, by the way, is simply not universally true; salary size doesn’t guarantee a level of excellence or grant any magical powers.

The organization’s financial resources, made up of city hotel occupancy tax funds and membership fees to the society, were depleted. There just didn’t seem to be any money there to get.

“There are limitations within the construct of Bastrop as it is today that impacts your ability to fundraise,” outgoing executive Georgina Ngozi said. “It’s a small community. It’s a community that has weathered some very harsh times because of the flooding, because of the fires. It’s a community that is rebuilding itself.”

While the people in Bastrop were supportive, she soon found that the museum was not competitive for big national grants.

“There were some constraints that did not become truly apparent to me until I moved here,” she said. “They were taking chances, and they took a chance with me.…The pool of resources is limited…everybody here needs them. That’s just the reality.”

The board has not given up altogether on the notion of staff, however. The executive’s position, complete with a reduced salary range of $45,000 to $52,000 per year, is being reposted.

“In no way does that reflect on the visitor center—period,” says board president Dan Hays-Clark. “We knew her salary would be unsustainable to us. It’s been a very good experience for her and for us. We are trying hard to find her something else so we can keep her in the community.”

“I am very, very pleased with the steps we’ve made,” Hays-Clark said.—Ruth McCambridge