Dysfunctional non-profit: how to remove a rogue Executive Director?
November 10, 2017 11:16 AM   Subscribe

I took over a year ago as Chair of the Board of an established non-profit organization whose previously excellent reputation has been slowly degrading over the last decade or so. Over this year, it’s become clear that things are out of control behind the scenes. The Executive Director and a number of the staff have zero respect for the Board or the membership of the organization, openly ignore direct instructions to the detriment of the institution, and simply aren’t productive. I’m worried about possible malfeasance leading to liability on the part of the Board members. There’s a broad consensus among Board members is that the first order of business is removing the ED, but this person has the power to break a lot of china on their way out. I’m looking for your advice on how to navigate their departure in the most respectful and least disruptive way possible.

The ED in charge of this small, membership-based organization has been in place for almost twenty years. They are not a total disaster: during the first half of their tenure, the organization’s finances were in very poor shape and this person did great work in putting things right. A few years ago, they secured a major source of core funding, making ongoing fundraising efforts less necessary. Unfortunately, they don’t deal well with the granting institution and their abrasive style causes frequent conflicts that have to be managed by the volunteer board. Furthermore, they have hired a number of former cronies and friends of friends to work in the office, and are unwilling to deal with any of the performance issues that come up. The age of the ED and many of their team is well above that of the membership demographic, which would not be a problem except for the fact that they show no interest in innovation or even hearing from the members or the Board about new issues or activities. Members have been complaining about lack of service and rude behaviour from the staff for some time and the voices have become too loud to ignore.

There have been rumblings for at least five years, but the ED is an expert in playing people off against each other and manipulating new Board members. Now, we finally have a Board in place that is willing to do the necessary, which will probably involve paying a substantial amount in severance fees as specified in their (very generous) contract to avoid litigation. (We’re in Ontario, Canada.) How do we go about getting this process in motion? What are some of the pitfalls we should keep in mind? If you’ve ever been on either side of this equation, what did you do that worked, and what would you do differently? Finally, if you are in Ontario and have used a specific consultant or lawyer you would recommend, please share that info. Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You need a good lawyer. Try Torys LLP in Toronto. They did good work for an org in my area and minimized the damage the outgoing ED was able to do. Good luck!
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:30 AM on November 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't do anything until you have had several meetings with a competent lawyer. I would recommend Samifu Tamiken (get a partner like David or Lior) or Hicks Morely, both based in Toronto. You should be able to get a free half hour phone consult while shopping around to get a feel for each lawyer's style. Also reach out to an IT consultant to get all computers discretely backed up over the weekend and discuss how to shut down remote access. Change is very disruptive to NP's, I assume you still have good people you want to retain so reach out to an Hr consultant to discuss how to manage the transition (including having people in place to pick up key tasks).
posted by saucysault at 11:35 AM on November 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Work with a communications consultant to create talking points and get ahead of the story. This ED could do damage by spreading lies and uncertainty. Have the important conversations with stakeholders as soon as possible but not early enough that word would get round to the ED (make no assumptions--actually, no, assume that people you tell may tell others).

For people who'll learn of it after the fact but are hard to reach, you can have meetings in place in advance, ostensibly for another topic, at which it'll make sense to instead talk about the transition; or block time for your people to make phone calls. If there are people of influence (internally or externally) who it would make sense to loop in beforehand, who are ready to present a unified front, consider it (very cautiously).

Have press release, newsletter copy, web page copy, social media posts, etc ready to go.

Cover your HR tasks in advance so you can avoid a back-and-forth once the news is out.

Follow principles for separating from potentially unruly employees. The Gift of Fear lists several, like seeking to deescalate but being ready with backup like a security guard down the hall.

Think about how to manage the staff: people who stand to lose from their buddy being let go, people who will be confused, people who will be happy. Prepare to equip your staff with talking points and a clear roadmap, to defray uncertainty internally.

I'm not expert in this stuff but nonprofits are my general field and I'm happy to talk through ideas; feel free to memail.
posted by rockyraccoon at 12:13 PM on November 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I was a spectator of one of these situations. The way my org did it was to involve a funding agency. It was not, dollar-wise, our biggest funder, but it was very influential and paid much of the ED's salary. The funder finally objected to the ED's behavior and she was (ultimately) forced out. The board was very little help here, as it was stacked with friends of hers. Good luck!
posted by 8603 at 12:56 PM on November 10, 2017

Thirding lawyering up. This was in the US, but i know of an org that was almost wiped out when its former ED sued for wrongful dismissal. Lawyer lawyer lawyer
posted by Monday at 7:12 AM on November 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

There is something like a 100% chance that the ED is going to hear about this before you get a chance to give notice, so keep that in mind. Does his generous severance depend on his playing nice--no public statements, etc.?
posted by LarryC at 1:05 PM on November 11, 2017

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