Beware of vampire staff

There is an invisible line that exists in the board-staff as well as the donor-staff relationship. Unfortunately, it is a blurry line that gets stepped over from time-to-time. Sometimes it is innocent, and other times it is malicious. Today’s blog post focuses on those not-so-innocent times and offers a few suggestions to both board and staff on how to handle these situations.

First let me start by stating the obvious: “The board of directors has ONLY one employee, and that person is the CEO (aka Executive Director) of the organization.” If this truism is not clear to everyone, then please know that trouble lies ahead on your journey, and it is preparing to ambush your organization.

While the CEO is the board’s only employee (and all other staff work for the CEO), there are times that the CEO finds it necessary to create an environment where their employees interact directly with the board. For example, agencies that are lucky enough to employ resource development professionals need to let that person(s) work directly with board volunteers to plan, implement and evaluate the comprehensive resource development plan. It is in situations like this that the “line” I referenced earlier can get trampled.

Here are a few real life examples that I’ve seen in my travels and work with non-profit organizations:

  • The RD professional was friendly with the COO. Unfortunately, the COO wasn’t performing at a high level and was on a corrective action plan and on the verge of termination. The RD professional didn’t agree with their CEO’s management decisions, started actively engaging the board president, and lobbied for the CEO’s termination (and implying that they should be named the CEO instead).
  • An employee who had been receiving poor evaluations for a few years sensed they were on thin ice. In an effort to undercut the CEO, they befriended key board volunteers and constantly chatted with them about non-work related issues (e.g. health problems, family problems, etc). It was obvious this strategy was an attempt to create sympathy and make it next to impossible for the CEO to terminate them without dealing with potential political blow-back from the board.
  • A special events coordinator hadn’t been making goal, and the CEO was starting to turn up the heat. Suddenly, the staff person initiated an extramarital affair with a married board volunteer who carried a lot of weight on the board and in the community. Oh, did I mention the volunteer was also a fairly substantial donor? <<Gulp>> Needless to say, terminating this employee suddenly came with many complications for the CEO.
  • A VP of Development decided they didn’t like the CEO’s management decisions (or the ‘tone’ they took with staff) and decided they would make a better CEO. Not only did they start openly lobbying for the CEO’s termination with the board president (who was a very good personal friend), but they did so with other key board volunteers and even donors.

Here are a few tips that should help when “the line” gets stepped over (and unfortunately it happens more often than you think even if it isn’t in such egregious ways as I’ve highlighted above):

  • Board volunteer tip #1: Don’t let staff (including the CEO) get too close and blur the line between professional and personal. When conversations shift to personal things, be polite and redirect the conversation at your earliest convenience.
  • Board volunteer tip #2: Be very familiar (and review annually) what your agency’s written policies say about how staff should register complaints about your only employee (aka CEO). So, when a staff person crosses that line you can quickly redirect them to that policy and urge them to follow it. Remember — not following written policies can put you in a legal position at a later date if the board finds that it needs to terminate a CEO’s employment.
  • Board volunteer tip #3: Similar to tip #2, make sure your agency has adopted written “Whistleblower policies” (this is above and beyond complaint policies in your employee handbook). Make sure the law is being followed with regards to posting and implementing that policy. Click here to read a really good blog post from Thomas Silk at Blue Avocado on this subject.
  • CEO tip #1: Don’t foolishly give your staff unfettered access to the board of directors. Be smart about it, and supervise the situation like a hawk. Remember — “You reap what you sow”.
  • CEO tip #2: Be proactive and upfront with your staff. Tell them during their orientation as well as periodically throughout their employment that there is a “line” that exists between board-staff and staff-donors. Be gentle yet firm and upfront about what will happen if that line is crossed.
  • CEO tip #3: Don’t be soft on staff who step over this line. Once a staff person violates the trust you have placed in them, it is almost impossible to regain it. Be prepared to terminate those employees who lack boundaries, and be prepared to do it swiftly regardless of the consequences. If they lack boundaries when it comes to this, then they lack boundaries all over the place.  Cut your losses quickly!

So, am I being too harsh? Do you think these vampire staff who prey on a board volunteer’s or donor’s good nature can be rehabilitated? Have you ever witnessed examples of similar situations? If so, how did the situation play out? Was there ever a ‘happy ending’ or does it always end up messy? Please use the comment box below to weigh-in because we can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

Erik Anderson
Owner, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847


  1. Great topic, Erik. As I was reading your post, I was reminded of when I was the Clinical Coordinator for an organization in Lake County. I had a staff person who continued to solicit funds from members of a large church with a primarily Latino population. Not only was she going up to the pulpit to request funds from the congregants, she was actively “hitting” up individual donors for all sorts of things. When I politely and repeated directed her to work with the Development Director on these activities, she began badmouthing me to other staff and volunteers. She also attempted to influence me and the ED by giving us gifts. I made the choice to not accept the gifts bc they were of “value”. I eventually learned that she was soliciting clients for money. When I confronted her on this issue, she blew up in my office and quit. She eventually filed suit against the organization and me. The suit never went anywhere. The organization did not have written policies to address this kind of behavior. The experience was definitely a “learning” for me and the organization.

    1. Amen, Danise!!! Your comment reminds me that HR policies and Whistleblower policies are not enough. A non-profit organization should also have a set of written resource development policies embedded in its annual resource development plan, and those policies should address a variety of fundraising issues include that of which you speak.

  2. As this can sometimes be a gigantic white elephant in the room, I’m glad you tossed the subject out there for conversation. I would add one other set of “bewares” for both CEOs and Board volunteers – Be cognizant of Board members with oogey agendas. In my experience as an Exec in a small-town non-profit, I had more than one Board volunteer that quietly had an axe to grind – either with me or with one of my staff. As a result, they in their own respective ways would go on “fishing” expeditions looking for information that could undermine the authority of the professional/executive staff – clandestine encounters in the hallway following committee meetings, taking up roost in offices, closed-door conversations that cross into inappropriate territory and other invitations to “divide & conquer.” I agree with you, Erik, vampires can lurk among the paid staff, but sometimes they show up in the Board room as well. Clear, agreed-upon expectations, that are reviewed on a regular basis and reaffirmed in difficult circumstances are a must – regardless of relationships outside of the organization.

    1. Thanks, Autumn . . . good point. Boundaries are boundaries, and for that matter I’ve also seen some donors who like to blur these lines. Policies are only one part of the solution as you point out and honest conversation is the other side.

      Running a non-profit is hard enough without all of the politics and hidden agendas, which is why CEOs must build good teams both among their staff AND boards.

      Great point, Autumn. I hope all is well with you in your “small town”.

  3. Thanks for good advice, Eric. I dealt as an ED with board volunteers who went to staff without my knowledge repeatedly and crossed the line even though there were policies. Any additional advice for this circumstance?

    1. Great hearing from you Karen . . . I hope all is well. Tough question, but not very uncommon. What makes it especially difficult is that it is easy for a CEO to fire staff for blurring this line, but board volunteers are completely different kettle of fish. You are right.

      My suggestions include:

      1. Working hard with the board president (and remember that they turnover fairly regularly) to understand this “line”. Once you and the board president are on the same page, you now have an ally who can engage those board members members who blur the line. I encourage this conversation to happen in the board president’s orientation shortly after they take office.

      2. Be prepared to resign. I strongly think every CEO needs to have a clear understanding with themselves around what are non-negotiable terms of employment before accepting the job.

      3. Be prepared to have “that conversation” with board members who blur that line (when the board president isn’t an ally or perhaps is the person doing the blurring), but know how to have that conversation in a non-confrontational manner. Try to frame the conversation in terms of the “shoe being on the other foot”. This doesn’t need to be a confrontational fight, but direct and honest communication might help nip this behavior in the bud. However, if a CEO isn’t prepared well in advance for this kind of discussion, the odds are good that it won’t turn out very well. Trust me … I speak from experience and have regrets over some of the things I said to those two board members. 🙁

      I wish life had a “do-over” button. LOL But we can all learn from each other, right?

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