May 19, 2017; Aspen Daily News
In the arts world, passions run high and “creative differences” is a phrase laden with emotional and often necessary endings. Even so, when 11 staff members leave your nonprofit in a 22-month period, your organization has hired four executives in a five-year period, and seven new board members have joined since 2015, something unusual and unsettling is going on.
The most recent executive director of Aspen Film, John Thew, was “abruptly” fired in April 2017. Thew has filed suit against the nonprofit, claiming his employment termination was made for “personal reasons” by a board member. Allegations include “ginning up fabricated and unsubstantiated tales of alleged ‘improper behavior’ toward former employees such as ‘stomping his foot’ and making ‘frightening gestures,’” wrote Thew’s attorney, Peter Thomas of Aspen. A board member, Elexa Ruth, is currently serving as interim executive director, according to the organization’s website.
Whether the firing was justified or whether the lawsuit has merit is dependent on whom one believes and which facts are relevant. Thew was hired from the Aspen area in 2015 after a national search. Statistically speaking, Thew increased revenues, including memberships and sponsorships. Employee turnover, claim some insiders, was a long-standing problem at Aspen Film, not something that can be specifically attributed to Thew’s management. However, Thew has been criticized for his budget handling and communications with the board. According to the story, “Aspen Film’s primary annual fundraiser date was changed to New Year’s Eve from an Oscars party, and was called a ‘financial disaster’ by one insider who blamed Thew for the outcome. That person, however, praised Thew for bringing in new donors to Aspen Film.”
The lawsuit alleges Aspen Film breached Thew’s three-year employment contract by not giving Thew a 90-day termination notice and by “intentionally” disclosing terms of Thew’s contract agreement, including salary details. It claims Mr. Thew’s reputation has been damaged and that, as a result, “due to the specialized nature of Mr. Thew’s profession,” he will find it difficult to find similar employment in the area and may need to relocate elsewhere in the country.
Thew may have been part of Aspen Film’s problems, or part of the solution, or both. What is clear is that the staff and executive turnover at the nonprofit continue with Thew’s departure, building a track record that new executives will find cautionary. It’s also clear that a nonprofit executive leading a volatile organization should have a solid employment contract in place to protect themselves in times of rapid board turnover and shifting performance expectations.—Michael Wyland