What happens when you're the last nonprofit gal standing?
August 14, 2008 9:51 PM   Subscribe

NonprofitChaosFilter: The grants fell through, and I'm the last full-timer in an office of 2. What's the most ethical thing to do when I'm the last employee left, there's no money left, and I've become the director's right-hand gal?

I'm working for a nonprofit that's just barely able to patch itself together. Nine months ago, I started off as the communications manager, but as of today I'm covering everything from booking plane tickets to washing dishes. Should I tell my boss that I'm unhappy in the midst of chaos, or just wait it out until I find a better job?

The first week I was hired, our office manager quit due to funding issues (her hours having been cut back to 8 per week--whee!). She was replaced by a part-time intern who, although quite a scholar, has no real background in office management. Another volunteer is covering payroll and accounting, and this person barely returns phone calls. Creditors are calling. The office is a wreck. We're chasing after grants to keep the boat afloat. To say morale is low is an understatement.

The executive director is a very hard-headed innovator who has kept the organization afloat for over 15 years. He's known for his creative drive, his sense of humor, his generosity, and his mercurial temper-- he flies off the handle, makes snap decisions, and defies the board (AKA his friends) in the name of keeping the organization (all 2 of us, ha!) alive. Today, it's just me and him in a small office. Every day, it's a new financial crisis--lots o' screaming on a regular basis (not directed toward me, just toward funders/grantors/creditors), coupled with episodes of crying and swearing. I'm 33 years old, and this is not working for me.

I took the job because the organization is involved in multimedia community work that I was very inspired by, and that I was very interested in learning more about. However, the environment has deteriorated to the degree that it's impossible for me to learn much more than scattershot last-minute grant-writing and creatively-strung-together curse words. I'm burned out and ready to move on.

The director is leaning on me a lot these days, and now that I'm the lone staffer, the expectations and demands are very high. Despite his propensity to anger, I honestly like the guy--he's got a hilarious sense of humor and he has been very generous and caring to me during this time (paying for lunches, including me in social events, remembering birthdays, etc.). Is there anything to be gained by being honest with him about how the dicey and chaotic financial situation is affecting me, or should I wait until I find another job, and then break the news? (I've been searching for work since this started to unfold ...)
posted by vindyloo to Work & Money (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If the ED is defying his board and there is no money, then there is very little hope for the future of this organization. In fact (and I speak from personal experience), the only way this "organization" (of two) can be salvaged is if the BoD fires the Executive Director. Who knows - if you stick around, they may give the job to you.

But two-weeks notice should be enough if you want to move on. Your boss is a grown-up. You are not going to be able to solve his problems (but you may be able to convince the BoD that you can salvage the situation, and they may have compelling reasons to keep you on, as they may be legally liable for some of the debts should seeking bankruptcy protection prove to be unsuccessful).
posted by KokuRyu at 10:04 PM on August 14, 2008

I've been in your shoes. Actually, I just left a similar situation a few months ago. It was hard but I'm really glad I left. I would actually err on the side of talking to him - it's unlikely to be a surprise, and will make it easier to look for something else.

But bottom-line: your ED, as creative and smart as he may be, is being incredibly irresponsible. It's a shame, but you need to protect yourself.

If you want to talk more, please don't hesitate to MetafilterMail me. Oh, the horror stories I can tell...
posted by lunasol at 10:28 PM on August 14, 2008

"Is there anything to be gained by being honest with him about how the dicey and chaotic financial situation is affecting me, or should I wait until I find another job, and then break the news? "

He knows it's chaotic and is affecting you. There's no news to break, unless you want a recommendation from him. He also apparently knows the ship is sinking, which is why he's made you no promises ("as soon as we weather this storm...") to try to keep you onboard.

Look for a new job.
posted by orthogonality at 10:55 PM on August 14, 2008

Best answer: Is there anything to be gained by being honest with him about how the dicey and chaotic financial situation is affecting me, or should I wait until I find another job, and then break the news?

Sure! You will feel a million times better the sooner you get out of that situation (trust me I've been in it.) Also, your ED will already have noticed that you are the only employee and that the financial situation is bad. It's not going to be a suprise that you're not interested in staying.

What you need to decide now is whether you're better off leaving now without the security of a new job lined up or waiting it out until you find one.

If you can't quit until you have a new job, I don't know if there's any point in telling your ED that you're looking. Chances are he's already assuming it. Chances also sound pretty good that the org isn't going to make it, so having enough warning to start finding a replacement for you is probably moot.

What's important right now is making sure you're okay. You need to do whatever will help you get through what sounds like a totally unbearable situation. If going in to work every day and not telling your ED that you're planning on leaving is stressing you out, tell him. If you'd rather have that conversation once you find a job, wait. There is no wrong ethical move in a situation like this because you're the one getting screwed by your ED and Board's mismanagement of the organization.
posted by nerdcore at 11:24 PM on August 14, 2008

Just find a new job. The Board is not going to fire an ED who has been running the organization for 15 years. There are organizations with boards who keep their hand on the helm, but those organizations also don't generally get into the dire straits yours is in (or have board members with equally bad judgment). If he's overruling them and they're not having some hard conversations to hold him accountable, they let him run the show.

Being honest with him isn't going to help, since it sounds (with all the crying and swearing) if he could change the situation, he already would have. What other hope remains? Are he / the Board holding out hope for getting a grant? That's not impossible but also, I'd imagine word about what's going on has already gotten around, minimizing his chances.

You deserve better than this. (And he probably knows that.) I'd find a new job, then either be apologetic and sympathetic, or talk about how you know it'll be a relief for him to not have to make payroll anymore. Good luck.
posted by salvia at 1:57 AM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh man, I worked at an agency just like this, it's really unfortunate to think of how many are out there. The bottom line is that these type of really wacky grassroots operations are much better suited for people with less to lose should the agency fold, kids right out of college, the kind of interns and volunteers that you mention make up a great part of the cobbled together "staff." I know it seems like you're indispensable to your director but the bottom line is that if you leave he won't blink an eye before getting someone ten years younger than you to do what you do for less money. And as has been mentioned, the only reason agencies get into situations like this in the first place is an anemic board of directors that is essentially letting the ED run the place into the ground. Definitely start putting out feelers with other agencies. I mean, even if this agency survives, so what? Where are you going to go within this kind of structure? There's no path forward or upward, here.

Hey, at least one of your prominent board members who never shows up for meetings, who is never available to provide direction or advice, but who shows up like clockwork for photo-ops isn't online blogging about how involved in your cause and how crucial to your agency he is. Uggh, what a nightmare these kind of agencies are.
posted by The Straightener at 5:44 AM on August 15, 2008

I understand why you would be nervous about leaving the guy since you're the only support left, but remember...he's been doing this for 15 years. At a non-profit. He'll be bummed, but I would be very surprised if this hasn't happened to him before.
posted by greenland at 7:06 AM on August 15, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone. I really appreciate your insight and advice in the midst of this wackiness. You all are great.

A particular curiosity is that the ED projects the image of being entirely convinced that we only need to get through the next few months, and then somehow everything's going to be OK: "Let's just weather the storm; things will get better -- we've been through worse and still survived." (Even though there's no unrestricted funding to speak of, and we're using the ED's personal credit card for expenses.) The only grant we've gotten since I've been here will cover about 1/4 of expenses for a large-scale project, so our attention has been directed towards sending out LOIs to raise funds for the remaining 3/4. This project is essentially the scrap of hope.

An ex-staffer who noticed I was unhappy yesterday advised me to prepare for "rage" if I decided to quit; a "how could you do this to me?" kind of response. I've seen these sorts of temper tantrums before, and I'm not eager to have one directed at me, but I can handle it gracefully if I have to. I just want out. The Straightener is right -- this place is essentially built on the backs of interns, folks straight out of school, and the absentee Board of Friends, er, um, Directors, who do nothing to stop the madness. There's no place forward or upward, for sure.

Back to the job search! Thanks again, all of you.
posted by vindyloo at 7:35 AM on August 15, 2008

I'd view this as an opportunity. Slug it out for as long as you can take it, because then you can say on your resume that you are the Senior VP of everything. In all seriousness, if you do manage to help get this outfit to do anything, even one project, you'll come out looking very, very good to whichever organization you want to interview at next.
posted by Citrus at 8:35 AM on August 15, 2008

Hmm, but what if their reputation has spread to those (s)he'd be interviewing with? I might see the Senior VP of SuperChaos.org as a martyr and/or part of the problem. If it was just a while, I might think, "wow, this person managed to deal with Crazy Bob for nine whole months? They must be good at keeping their cool." But I would definitely view it as a positive sign when they called me to discretely inquire about other opportunities.

Good luck with the search!
posted by salvia at 11:13 AM on August 15, 2008

Having been in crazy non-profit situations, I say: get the hell out of Dodge ASAP, and don't worry about the raging. It will pass, all this will pass, and the toughness you've built up in this experience will serve you well in the future. You will need to be careful about what you say interviewing, esp if his org is well-known in the area, but I'm sure you know that already. :) Also, make sure there's somebody, an ex-staffer, a board member, or someone else who can vouch for your work.

Good luck!
posted by epersonae at 6:02 PM on August 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone, for the insight and the vote of confidence. I'm definitely on my way out, and plan to have a conversation with the ED next week about how to facilitate the transition. I'm also going to go back to school. This was just the experience I needed in order to light the proverbial fire. Best wishes to all of you.
posted by vindyloo at 9:51 PM on August 28, 2008

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