Q: I’m on the board of the local unit of an established and respected national organization. Our executive director was recently let go by the national administration and the community is quite upset. There have been some emergency meetings regarding her firing. A couple of the board members are hosting those meetings and, to put it bluntly, adding fuel to the fire in the community. The board president is concerned that their actions do not mesh with their duties as board members, particularly since we have an obligation to the national organization. Do you have any thoughts?
A: I would have to agree with your board president and – from the tone of your question – you. Board members can form close personal relationships with the executive director with whom they work. And, it is easy to let those friendships override an objective evaluation of that person’s competency and/or the current leadership needs of the organization, especially if the board felt the person was doing a good job. But, it is one thing to be unhappy and to question the decision internally. To participate in community meetings – let alone convene them – undermines the respect for the organization in the community and can ultimately do great harm if stakeholders lose trust in the organization. Board members have a responsibility to provide a unified front and the board president has every right – make that a responsibility – to ask board members to circle the wagons behind the national decision.
That everyone was so taken aback has to make me question several things. Was the board cognizant of the executive director’s job description and that she reported to the national organization? Did members have a say in, or minimally know, the goals and measures of success to which this woman was being held? Did the national organization suggest to the board that this woman be provided with some coaching so as to minimize the need for termination? Or, at the very least, did the national organization give fair warning about any perceived deficiencies or concerns to prevent exactly this sort of reaction? Was any local evaluation done? If so, was it done by a limited few and not shared with the board as a whole? Or, was this a case of malfeasance? The answers to these questions imply actions for moving forward responsibly with both the next executive director and the national administration.
For now, though, the organization’s crisis communication plan should be immediately implemented to stem the damage done out in the community. The organization’s spokesperson might make a statement recognizing the beloved status of the recently-terminated executive director but assuring the public that this change is going to be positive for the community and why. At the same time, the spokesperson should emphasize the value of the organization and the importance of all rallying behind it during the transition.
I might suggest that the board chair also call a board meeting solely for the purpose of letting board members air their anger and begin the healing process. People can be encouraged to talk about their shock and outrage. But then they should also be encouraged to talk about entering a new chapter in the local organization’s life. What do the board members want to see as they move forward? How can they help ensure the next executive director is successful? If it’s a group that appreciates ritual, perhaps the individuals can create a list of all the good qualities and successes the ousted executive director brought to the table and another list of qualities that had a negative impact on the organization. The good qualities could be saved in the record of the organization’s history and the negative ones burned, buried or flushed away. Such an exercise allows the group to relegate the past to the past and ready itself to move forward unencumbered.
Terrie Temkin, Ph.D. is an internationally-recognized governance and planning expert. She is a founding principal of CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, Inc., which interweaves governance, board development, fund development, PR/marketing and public policy to strengthen organizational capacity. She invites your questions. Contact her at 888-458-4351 Ext. 3 or