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The Bad Press

In August 2018, local news outlets and the Nonprofit Quarterly ran stories about the very public exit of a successful and long-tenured president and CEO of the United Way of Lower Eastern Shore.

Underlying the dispute, four of nine staff members had left the organization over a period of a few months in early and mid-2018. After hiring an external consultant and performing a review of the facts, the board of directors terminated the executive director. When doing so, it offered a separation agreement to the executive director, only to have that lead to allegations that the board was trying to “payoff” the existing executive to buy her silence.

These facts are not unique. Nonprofits work under perpetual stresses. Staff is underpaid relative to their for-profit peers, and perceived mistreatment or even factionalism can swiftly fracture a small nonprofit staff. Furthermore, when a staff is small, employees may feel that they have no means of providing candid feedback without repercussion.

What To Do Now

So what lessons can all nonprofits learn from this series of unfortunate events? Here are three quick takeaways.

1. Use tools to seek regular staff feedback. Free online tools like OfficeVibe permit nonprofit leaders to receive regular, anonymous feedback from staff members about a host of talent management and “culture” factors. This may not have prevented the problems with this nonprofit, but it might surface or even prevent a similar concern in yours.

2. Set clear talent management metrics for the CEO. A board of directors should be willing to provide oversight in cases of significant staff disruption. But what is “significant”? And what is “disruption”? A CEO/ED should have this critical conversation with her board and establish employee satisfaction metrics. Again, OfficeVibe and similar programs can help, but long before an issue arises, the CEO/ED should raise the issue of standards by which her staff management will be judged. Maybe this nonprofit was going to face troubles anyway, but raising the issues within your own nonprofit may prevent noisy and disruptive exits later.

3. Consider exits long before they occur. As Boomers retire, senior management succession is an increasingly regular challenge for nonprofits. Nonprofits should develop succession plans to consider if and how they would compensate an exiting a CEO/ED long before that event occurs. (Of course, when you do so, also consider the optics of such deals.)

Nonprofit risk management requires a board to work closely with the CEO/ED. By providing clarity about talent management objectives and metrics, and thinking ahead about senior executive exits, you can avoid substantial trouble.

Because we care about nonprofit risks, we provide blog posts like this one to help nonprofits thrive. 

This post is a part of our #nonprofitsbehavingbadly? series, where we find lessons in other nonprofits’ bad press so you can improve your own nonprofit risk management. Keep in mind when you read these posts that the nonprofit in the spotlight may have actually done nothing wrong. That’s part of the point. There’s always a story behind the story, and unfortunately a nonprofit does not get to write the press it receives. So what can a nonprofit do now to try to reduce the likelihood of bad front-page news?


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