Dear Nonprofit Ethicist,
I am the executive at a fairly new arts organization in a city with a lot of wonderful arts groups. Ours, however, specializes in the art of new arrivals in the United States: immigrants and refugees. I could not be more excited about my position and many others feel the same way about the institution. My worry is that we have grown very fast and sometimes I think we may have lost something along the way.
The particular situation I am most concerned about has to do with our board. A few months ago a major funder expressed concern about our financial systems, which were at that point divided up probably among too many people, including myself. The program officer was willing to invest for a few years in a dedicated position of business manager, so I mapped out a hiring process and went to the next board meeting with it. When I brought the issue up I saw a look pass between the board chair and a new member of the board and I knew I was in trouble. This new board member, I knew, had recently been laid off from a local financial institution. The conversation about hiring was cut short because of other business.
The next day the chair dropped in unexpectedly and suggested that we hire the new board member into the position. She had his resume in hand—ready to go. I tried to resist, but in the end she basically ordered me to hire this guy. Never mind that his performance has not been stellar to date, I am consumed by shame and guilt and anger. Both of these people are well connected to other important arts patrons. What should I have done? What do I do now?
Don’t be hard on yourself. Yours is an altogether-too-common problem. Given that one of your board members was unemployed, what could you have done to prevent your board chair from pushing his candidacy anyway? The ethical issue is doing what is best for the organization. The issue of who to hire comes last—after a review of the existing financial operation, a plan for its reorganization, and a job description. This is a public trust, and the board should respect that. A board chair has no right to order you to do anything, and except in large organizations, even the board as a whole should not be directly involved in hiring senior staff. That’s the CEO’s role. That said, you would not be normal if you weren’t worried about your job security, so let me make two practical suggestions. (1) Call in reinforcements. Have you talked to your funder? Maybe the program officer would be willing to have a chat with the board chair, or the whole board, about the funder’s expectations—which presumably are beyond the capacity of your unemployed board member—and why it’s a bad idea to hire a board member anyway. This way, if they want to kill the messenger, you’re not in the line of fire. (2) Hang tough. If you do not have the authority to hire and fire, you are going to have a hard time getting your subordinates to follow instructions to your satisfaction. If you hire this guy, you will just postpone a crisis, or else you will wind up doing two jobs—yours and his. After you deal with this crisis, maybe you could arrange ethics training for your board.
Dear Nonprofit Ethicist,
I wonder if you could address an issue that nags at me. I am a fairly new (one year) executive director of a human services nonprofit, with most of our funding from government sources. A few years ago the agency decided to seek more private funding and donations, so my predecessor hired a part-time development director to plan special events, conduct an annual appeal, and seek corporate and private support. Since I have been at the agency, I have observed this person in action in a number of situations that concern me.
In at least two situations I have observed—so presumably there are others—we have been talking to a potential donor when she mentioned the needs of her children’s private school and said she would like to talk to them at another time about that. I am all for supporting education, but I question whether she should be using her work relationships and time to seek funds for another organization. I worry about the mixed message that sends to potential donors, and I worry that she is using our donor list for a different agenda. The instances I have witnessed nag at me, but I have not said anything to her yet because I am not sure how to handle it.
Is it just my own competitiveness for funds, or is it a real concern? What is your assessment, and how would you handle the issue with the staff person? I should mention that this employee has not responded well to new agency leadership and complains often to others at the agency. She is probably looking for another job, which is actually for the