Need some help to extricate myself from a volunteer organisation
July 31, 2016 4:33 AM   Subscribe

I need to find the best way to exit from an organisation run by someone who is creating a lot of toxicity, without letting down my fellow volunteers or putting someone else into an uncomfortable position. (Long story inside.)

Since last October, I have been helping out an organisation that deals internationally with vulnerable people. The founder started out alone, using facebook to source funds and donated goods, and then decided to grow the organisation. However, the founder doesn't handle money well, has something of a martyr complex, and has damaged some crucial relationships with other organisations on the ground. My role varies from "general admin" to "social media content creation" to "volunteer recruitment and screening" so I am a semi-public face for this organisation, and it's making me anxious and uncomfortable.

I tried to withdraw from the organisation back in March, found someone who would step in to perform some of the tasks I have been doing, and explained my reasons for leaving at the time (I wanted to focus on finding paid work, I was concerned about the lack of financial transparency to donors and poor communication from the founder, who is permanently based outside our home country). But within a month my replacement had stepped down, saying she was overloaded by the founder, and I was approached to rejoin to organise a single small event.

The event was cancelled and I quickly learned that there were only three people working behind the scenes, including the founder and myself, and it looked like the founder was making a concerted effort to improve transparency and communication. So I recommitted and focused my efforts on volunteer recruitment as well as being a sounding board and informal "board" representative. (One of the things that makes me uncomfortable is the lack of a board to agree on critical decisions.)

In the past week the founder has contacted me to complain that another organisation we have previously worked closely with is demanding more recognition from us for their contributions to our work, something I think is reasonable since they contribute volunteer time and goods to our projects. My feeling is that the founder wants 100% of the recognition and glory. My colleague here suggested we partner with some other small organisations to fundraise and raise awareness and the founder immediately said no, as they don't want other organisations' logos on our work.

The founder has also suddenly asked for a monthly stipend, which is fair enough, since they have been working solidly for 6 months in a foreign country only partially funded by the organisation (we cover accommodation, rental car and flights -- but even that was never formally agreed to that I know of; but the founder has sole control of the bank account). We also have next to no money and the founder has already asked for a monthly budget that is extremely difficult for us to maintain at the home-base end. Since we have no formal board, we had a meeting to discuss it and said we cannot set this up at the moment as we have just applied to multiple foundations on the basis that our funds go to projects with a small amount going to accommodation costs. My colleague and I felt railroaded into agreeing to this with some workarounds that feel inappropriate.

I have just received another message from the founder that the organisation they consider a "rival" has taken issue with some blog content I wrote. I feel like I am trapped in the middle of a relationship that has gone bad and I want nothing to do with any of it.

In a nutshell: I want out. But the organisation is quite reliant on me at the moment and I am unwilling to ask someone else to step in and take over in a work environment that seems to be getting more toxic. I would also like to maintain a friendly relationship with the founder if possible, because while they are difficult to work with, they are doing some very good work. I can't figure out how to frame my arguments for leaving in a way that will lead to genuine long-lasting improvement while leaving on a neutral-to-positive note. I also don't know how to cope with the guilt I will feel for effectively ditching the team that I am a part of.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Walk away now and find another organization to volunteer with that is doing work you believe in. You cannot single-handedly save a poorly run outfit. Your guilt in doing so is misplaced here. And forget the leaving on a positive note. They would learn more in the long run from honest blunt feedback than from positivity. There are a lot of well run non-profits who would be thrilled to have someone conscientious working with them.
posted by cecic at 4:48 AM on July 31, 2016 [15 favorites]

Get out before your good name is totaled. Document everything but get out. Someone is going to go through their books like a dose of salts one day, and you don't want any of it sticking to you. People like this eventually provoke forensic level of scrutiny. This is incredibly likely to be the beginning, middle, or end of something really shady. Non-locals working abroad need to ask themselves why it's not the local orgs doing the work and getting the stipends.

Also, my theory with NGOs is that there is always a narcissist at the top. That's the best personality to get a cause off the ground and running...but they can never help themselves. They always stick around too long, dominate and ruin their great work trying to milk more praise and power/territory till it's toxic for all.

No cause and no colleague is worth volunteering with when it's shady or making you uncomfortable. And you don't need to tell your narcissist much. Just say you need to work on your career....and you need the income. Lie about your economic position if that's not true. Don't get caught staying there. There will always be something that crops up and makes you feel like you can't leave. Don't get sucked in. Give notice and leave.
posted by taff at 4:48 AM on July 31, 2016 [13 favorites]

It's not on you to find a replacement. They keep bringing you back because you keep saying yes to a job neither you nor anybody else really wants. Leave for the reasons you cited the first time and stay gone.

And always remember that old MeFi standby, "I'm sorry. That won't be possible."
posted by hollyholly at 4:49 AM on July 31, 2016 [20 favorites]

Leave now. You do NOT want to be associated in any way with this organization. I can predict with 100% certainty that this will not end well. I also suspect that there will soon be legal/tax types of issues that could put you at risk. I'm surprised this organization has lasted this long.
posted by HuronBob at 5:01 AM on July 31, 2016 [14 favorites]

If you're into these things, something I found helpful when trying to extract myself from a very important but highly challenging organization was this little mantra:

I am not this.
This is not mine.
This is not me.

It's not your responsibility to fix this. Walk away and find a way to use that great energy and compassion working with a different group.
posted by scrute at 5:42 AM on July 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding what HuronBob said. I would strongly recommend consulting an attorney to find out what your liability/exposure might be. (Chances are, none, but you don't want any surprises here.)

Abusive employers often manipulate conscientious people like yourself by holding the mission hostage: If you don't step up and bridge the gap with your own body, the world will end and it will be all your fault.

An organization as dysfunctional as the one you describe is not able to be of much help to anyone. If it stops existing because you leave, not much will change in the world.

Walk. Today.
posted by Weftage at 5:43 AM on July 31, 2016

This sounds slightly like a thing I have followed a little bit on FB. One-woman show at the start, got a lot of exposure in the press c. early 2015, the one woman running it was not at all transparent about funds; things started to splinter as she disappeared for a stint ("illness") and nobody knew where she or the money were for a bit, and when she returned there were some splinter groups splitting off, dubious explanations, a number of vocal backers of the one woman, a handful of "admin" added...

Peeking at it now, I notice that one of the major 'admins' is no longer a part of the group, and there is still the idea that it is the one woman's full-time job/show, there is still nearly no transparency, and still...well, a mess. Still up and running, but.

There are some differences between your story and the saga I am thinking about, but I'm wondering if you didn't adjust the story a bit for plausible deniability vis-a-vis what the organisation was. Neither here nor there, though, as they compare so well. The one I am thinking about has been so badly run and so permanently damaged by the questionable actions of its founder that no rational person would question why you are jumping ship, and the irrational ones left behind really aren't worth explaining it to; they've been so willing to believe the founder and defend the founder, without knowing a damn thing about what goes on behind the scenes, that it's almost cult-like.

It's probably not the same organisation, but it would appear to share enough in common with it that I'd just submit my resignation and bounce ASAP. There are no longer positive news articles about it, the stated mission has changed roughly a few times over its existence, many of the wee spin-off groups are doing decent work, the founder really, really needed to step back (and resign or get a board or otherwise deal with control/transparency issues). Any journalist or tax man investigating now would probably find a lot to object to. Why risk being associated with somebody who has behaved questionably? There are undoubtedly other ways to serve the communities being served, and probably better ways. If the founder was really going about things the right way, it would not be difficult to replace you -- if it is difficult to replace you, that should give you pause for thought, and further incentive to distance yourself. I can't see why 'I need to focus on finding paid work' or 'I have over-committed myself and cannot continue to provide useful help here' or whatever short explanation wouldn't suffice.
posted by kmennie at 6:28 AM on July 31, 2016

There are plenty of organizations out there doing very good work and, probably the exact same very good work this organization is doing, but without the sketchiness or toxicity. I implore you to go find one of those and invest your time and energy there. As for leaving, just tell the founder essentially the same thing as the last time you left, but with less detail about your issues with the organization. Explain that you really need to find paid work and when you returned it was with the hope that you'd help them get back on track & resume your job search at the end of the summer. Express best wishes for the organization and that's it. No additional commentary is necessary. When they try to convince you to come back, continue to express support but say sorry, that simply isn't possible. It is very likely that this organization will not survive and sticking around through its deterioration will negatively impact your own reputation and ability to do similar work in the future. The best way to the save the world right now is to save yourself first. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 6:28 AM on July 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

You don't have to "frame an argument for leaving." You're allowed to just leave....she doesn't get to decline your resignation, and you are 100% within your rights to simply say "I've decided to pursue other uses for my time and I'm afraid my decision is not up for discussion." Then go.

I get that you want to maintain a workable relationship with her because she's doing "good work" but that doesn't actually make her a good person - a lot of people do good things solely for the recognition they get, not because it helps others. You'd be doing them a favor by giving them a month notice and lining out some of your concerns (the board, transparency, the need for collaboration with other groups) but you don't owe her any of those things.

As for guilt...this is merely one person's opinion but I don't think you're ditching them by a stretch. She failed you as a leader of the group, you didn't fail her or the organization. You need to get out unscathed so you can do good elsewhere. If you feel guilty, assuage it by volunteering for an organization more in line with your values and run by someone that does a better job.
posted by kattyann at 6:46 AM on July 31, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'm wrapping up the closure of our ngo which took massive effort to transfer families and funds and make sure bills and staff were paid fairly in full, and I'm still up to my eyeballs in paperwork as the last remaining volunteer involved - an organisation that is dependent on one person who feels trapped or burned out isn't a healthy organisation and should not continue.

I have friends involved in similar tiny orgs like yours being pushed to volunteer more or turn blind eyes to unethical stuff because they don't want to disappoint other volunteers and clients, and I wish so much they would just leave. They could do much more with their skills and giving at a healthy organisation. They're only helping a damaged place limp along longer because the leader of the org is so toxic.

Memail me if you want to talk, I know leaving is very hard.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:54 AM on July 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

+1 HuronBob. Be gone now. Today. Send a letter documenting your reasons why to all parties, which will turn up if there's ever legal action.

Also, any organization that can't survive one person's departure is not a well-run organization, even if it doesn't have all the other obvious problems that this one does.
posted by adamrice at 7:07 AM on July 31, 2016

I don't think you can help this organization improve.

If there's no Board, is this even a registered nonprofit? I would be uncomfortable giving money to an organization with the kinds of problems you describe even despite any good work being done on the ground. Your work there is giving legitimacy to an organization that doesn't sound like it's on solid footing.

One person should not have control of the bank account (often two representatives need to have signing authority). Is there a Treasurer? Is money being solicited via Facebook etc. and then going into a bank account that the founder withdraws from? If that's the case then there really isn't an "organization". It's just people giving one person money to distribute as that person sees fit.

Have you gotten grants before? Usually funders want confirmation of nonprofit status and a list of the Board members. My work background is in the US and Canada so maybe it is different where you are but I can't see any funders here awarding grants to a group that isn't legally incorporated.

I would step away and let the organization dissolve on its own. You can find another way to help the affected population.
posted by betsybetsy at 7:54 AM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

By definition, if they cannot find a replacement, it is a job you don't want. Your ability to help others or to contribute to an organisation that is doing so is not dependent on this job.

On preview, what everyone else said.
posted by AugustWest at 8:09 AM on July 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

You do not owe anyone, including this organization's founder, an explanation of why you are leaving. Send Founder an email that you will no longer be working for the organization as of a specific date, and copy it to the people you work with in your home-base. Same as if you were leaving a paid job, keep it short and to the point, without any extra reasons or explanations:

"Dear Founder:
Please accept my resignation from X Organization, effective (date).

And note that while that says 'please accept' your resignation, that's merely formal polite language: it does not mean she has an option here of rejecting your resignation: you are not her serf, unable to leave without her permission!

If she is silly enough to keep bugging you after that to "come back, come back! dig me out of this hole I've dug!", then you have two choices: either keep repeating "That won't be possible" unto eternity, or (if she gets really pushy) block her calls/texts/etc. Walk away from this onrushing tidal wave of trouble before you get caught up in it, too.
posted by easily confused at 8:42 AM on July 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am a Volunteer Coordinator and senior staff at a non-profit. Without a board, your organization has no leadership and, perhaps more importantly, no oversight. It sounds to me like you are being put in the position of acting as a Board member would, but without the liability limitations. Ask yourself what you would do if this were a paid job (and I'm saying whistle blowing to the authorities would not be out of line. Even charities have fiduciary and legal responsibilities...) Write a letter stating your reasons for resigning and stop all contact. You do not need to be neutral, polite, nor positive.

I understand your concern about bailing on the other volunteers - I see firsthand, daily, how strong and wonderful relationships between volunteer colleagues can be. You owe it to them to stand up for what is right, even if that means moving your efforts to a healthier recipient. Organizations should keep up their end of the bargain for volunteers, by providing a healthy, transparent workplace.
posted by AliceBlue at 9:13 AM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

The best way to exit is literally just by leaving. Putting aside your emotional response to leaving, any guilt, etc. and just walking away. Send an email to the founder today that says you're leaving and not to contact you in the future for any reason.

Don't bring more people into this dysfunctional, fucked up organization. Remove your name and content from the blog and remove your name from anything internal. Tell the current volunteers that the organization is failing and they should leave, they deserve to know the truth.

If this organization is behaving unethically or illegally, you do not want any part of it. You should report them, if possible and you need to leave right now to cover your own ass. It could severely tarnish your reputation or involve you in legal proceedings. I would suggest you document everything and keep copies of it all so you can protect yourself.

No one is forcing you to go back or continue volunteering with them, so don't force yourself to do it either. This organization is in its death throes. As the founder does more and more damage to their relationships with other organizations and misspends more and more money, they're going to reach a point where they can no longer extricate themselves from the mess they've created. There will most likely be severe repercussions. Don't stick around for that.
posted by i feel possessed at 11:53 AM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Spending your time and energy on this failing, toxic organization is keeping you from spending time or energy helping vulnerable people in ways that actually improve their lives. Keeping this failing organization going is keeping vulnerable people and other organizations dependent on it, and therefore even more vulnerable when the organization goes under, rather than letting them find other, more robust resources.

I would leave immediately.
posted by lazuli at 4:29 PM on July 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

And I don't know exactly what kind of work this organization does, but a founder who seems to be doing charity or development work for "vulnerable people" who sees similar organizations as "rivals" is not looking out for vulnerable people, he's using vulnerable people to feed his own ego. Which is exactly how many organizations end up exploiting the people they claim to be helping.
posted by lazuli at 4:34 PM on July 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

(Which is to say: There's no reason to feel guilty for "letting him down" or for "letting the organization down." It sounds like the organization's letting a lot of people down, and you'd be better off away from it.)
posted by lazuli at 4:37 PM on July 31, 2016

Leave. Now. You are zero percent responsible for finding your replacement. Everything else is pure manipulation.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:15 PM on July 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's not your responsibility to set yourself on fire to keep other people warm. Take your skills and experience to another organisation working in the same, or a related, field.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:11 PM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pretend, for a moment, that this is a job. Forget, for a moment, that you are not paid to do this work. If you wanted to leave, what would you do? You would resign. So resign. Give two weeks' notice, since you are worried about how they will get by without you. You don't have to give a reason, really, but the reason you have already given is a very good one. (That you need to focus on paid work.)

They will get by without you, just like any employer would. It isn't your responsibility to save this organization from itself. Given the disorganization you describe, it seems unlikely that you could save it from itself even if you really wanted to.
posted by Cranialtorque at 1:38 PM on August 2, 2016

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