Attention board members: Beware of staff complaints about the executive director

pandoras boxIf you Google the definition of “Pandora’s Box,” the all-knowing internet oracle says the term means: “a process that generates many complicated problems as the result of unwise interference in something.” I love this expression, and I used it a few months ago when talking to the board president of a non-profit organization who was describing to me how they were handling a complaint about the agency’s executive director.
In a nutshell, the board president in question was approached by a staff member with a complaint. The board president asked the staff member to put the complaint in writing and agreed to take it to the entire board of directors.
While on face value, this might make sense because the executive director works for the board. I believe this opens the flood gates, and anytime staff have an issue they will now likely circumvent the executive director and go straight to the board.
My advice?

Don’t undercut your executive director like this. You might as well fire them if this is how you’re going to manage them.

With that being said, I bet there are many of you who are wondering what the right course of action should be. After all, it is a fiduciary responsibility of the board to hire and manage the executive director.
Here is how I suggest the board handles all staff complaints pertaining to the executive director:

  1. Immediately ascertain if the executive director has done something ILLEGAL, UNETHICAL or VIOLATES AN AGENCY POLICY.
  2. If the issue rises to the level of illegal, unethical or policy-related, reach for a bottle of Maalox or Pepto and ask for staff to put it in writing (and if illegal call the police and an emergency board meeting immediately!). Or more importantly, follow the written process if you one.
  3. If the issue doesn’t rise to this level, then politely turn them around and ask them to try working it out directly with the executive director. Explain that there is a process to follow and it starts with trying to first work it out with the boss. Empathize with their situation and express confidence that it can be worked out. Walk them through your agency’s policy/procedure. Explain the circumstances of when they might submit something to the board in writing after they try to work it out with the executive director (e.g. retaliation, etc). Be transparent. Be genuine. Empathize. But draw the line clearly.
  4. Circle back around to the executive director. Be transparent about what happened. Encourage them to work things out. Remind them of the importance of staff morale and the power of team. Remind them to stay within the agency’s policy boundaries. Express confidence in their abilities to solve the issue.
  5. Prepare for the worst case scenario.

Please don’t misread what I’m saying here. I did not just tell board volunteers to wash their hands of staff complaints unless it rises to the level of “illegal, unethical, or policy violation“. What I am saying is . . . not all complaints are equal and the ones that don’t rise to the level of illegal / unethical / policy violation should be handled in a way where you’re not undercutting your executive director.
Because . . .
If you choose to allow staff to circumvent the board’s one employee — the executive director — then you’re opening Pandora’s Box, and I guarantee that you won’t have an executive director for long. You will either fire them or they will quit.
There are some assumptions that I’m making about your agency when writing this blog post such as:

Let me bottom line this complicated issue:

  • You don’t want to undercut your executive director
  • You don’t want to abdicate your fiduciary responsibilities to supervise the executive director and ensure the agency is well-run
  • You want to think these things out in advance — proactive and not reactive
  • You want written policies and procedures in place and you want to follow them (don’t be arbitrary or capricious in enforcing the rules)
  • You don’t want to put the agency in a position to get sued

Is that it?
LOL . . . yeah . . . that’s it. Good luck!
Since we can all learn from each other. Please scroll down and use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences on this topic. Please also feel free to point your fellow non-profit professionals and board volunteers to awesome samples and online resources to assist them in managing risk.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Outcomes, impact and criminal prosecution — A harbinger for the non-profit community?

jailAttention non-profit professionals . . . are you paying attention to the news? There is a news story developing in Atlanta, and it may be a harbinger of things to come for non-profit agencies who take money from the government. This made-for-cable-television-drama involves a school superintendent, dozens of teachers and administrators, and a conspiracy to change thousands of standardized tests. All of this was done in the name of maintaining government pass-through funding.

Click here or on the YouTube window below to get a better explanation of what is going on, and then we’ll talk about why I believe this is relevant to the non-profit sector.


When I heard this story, my mind immediately turned to the countless number of non-profit organizations that are struggling to develop a community impact and program outcomes model. The intent behind these efforts usually include:

  • evolving with their local United Way community impact initiative,
  • becoming more competitive when it comes to foundation and government grant writing, and
  • being able to show individual and corporate donors a return on their investment.

Of course, one of the central questions at the center of this struggle (as well as at the center of the No Child Left Behind debate) is:

“Who cares if test scores go up if it doesn’t result in solving the greater community need?”

For example, there is some evidence that shows students doing better on standardized tests, but more and more of incoming college students are enrolling in remedial classes their freshman year because they didn’t learn what they needed to learn prior to applying for college.

Isn’t it the same question for non-profit organizations?

How many youth development agencies are running child obesity programming with government funding and using pre- and post-test methods to determine if the participant was able to digest and regurgitate the program curriculum. Of course, knowing that I shouldn’t eat Cheetos and actually not eating them are two different things. Right? So, what is the donor really paying for and are we measuring the right things?

The bigger question being begged by the Atlanta school district news story is:

“If we tie student test performance to school funding, then aren’t we creating a situation where institutions are tempted to bend rules and even cheat the system?”

As I asked earlier, isn’t it the same question for non-profit organizations?

Do I believe there are non-profit organizations who “fudge” their program outcomes evaluation in order to keep their United Way happy? Sure I do!

Do I also believe there are non-profit organizations who do the same thing with their government grant deliverables? Yes, I believe there are a few.

You can chalk this blog post up to my cynicism. Or you can use it to ward off temptation to game the system. I suggest the later and not the former because there isn’t any difference between what the educators in Atlanta did and a non-profit organization misrepresenting its outcomes data to a local, state or federal funding source.

If you buy into this line of reasoning, then keep your eyes on the Atlanta news story because I predict the plot will thicken and jail time could be in a few people’s future.

Does your agency have policies in place that help protect against any of this happening (e.g. ethics policy, whistleblower policy, document destruction policy, etc)?  Are these policies just on paper or are their routinely used? Does your organization have shared values? If so, how are those values integrated into the hiring process to ensure that you’re hiring ethical employees? Do you believe the Atlanta school story is a harbinger or am I just over reacting? Please weigh-in using the comment box below. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847