Q: We’re on the board of an organization that has been providing services in the community for many years. A couple years ago, one of our board directors and a key staff person broke off and started a similar organization. We did nothing about it – the community needs these services and our attitude was that they helped fill a gap. Though, it did hurt. They took copies of all our protocols and are using those to operate. They also went after all our vendors and tried to woo them away. They even called the IRS and reported that we were misusing donors’ money. (We weren’t and passed the audit with flying colors, but it cost us a lot in time and money to defend ourselves.) Why we’re writing now is that even several years later, they regularly make it a point to bad-mouth us.
We are very divided. On one hand, we just want to use our energy to go about our business, serving clients. On the other, it stings. If what we were doing was good enough to copy, how deserving can we be of their constant put-downs? Should we sue as some have suggested? Fight back in another way? Or let it go, since it’s been so long?
A: I’m sorry you have had to deal with this. There are a few things you couldhave done to prevent this from happening in the first place – things you can do now to prevent this from happening again. The first is to ensure that all your proprietary materials are printed with a copyright symbol, the year each document was first published and your organization’s name. No official registration is required to protect your ownership. Second, you can ask that all employees and board directors sign a non-disclosure form that covers your intellectual property, dictating that they can’t share your materials and methodologies with others. Third, you can have a written policy that reminds your board directors’ that all communication with staff is to go through the executive director – an accepted and often times recommended practice. And, fourth, you can ensure that your board orientation covers the directors’ legal duties, which include the duty of loyalty. The duty of loyalty requires putting the organization’s needs ahead of any personal needs, feelings or desires. While none of these things will, in and of themselves, stop devious individuals from stealing your work, it should give them pause and it definitely gives you a leg to stand on if you decide to go after them in court.
What you can do now is tell the world about their malicious behavior, though it won’t really change anything and you will undoubtedly come across as defensive, which could make you look weak. You could also sue for defamation. You would have to prove that a third party heard the statement that is negatively affecting your reputation, that the statement is injurious to your business, and that it was not privileged information. The fact that these individuals misrepresented you to the IRS and you passed an audit would probably be proof enough that you have a case. However, it can be costly to take a case to court and it would be impossible to spread the word of a win to all those who heard the inflammatory comments. Besides, I doubt even the experience of losing would stop their behavior. It might even motivate them to redouble their efforts against you.
I suggest following your inclination to ignore them and focus on what you are doing. Be kind. Be the best you can be. People who know you and who work with you will know the truth. Spend time stewarding your donors – staying in close contact, showing that you care for them as people, not just for their money, and demonstrating the impact you make on a daily basis. Build a strong volunteer program, sharing the big picture with your volunteers, providing them with meaningful jobs and letting them see the whole of the organization in action. Address them by name and remember their big days. Be transparent with everyone. This is the best way to win friends and influence people.
If you have extra energy, spend it on PR and marketing. Put out testimonials. Show your organization in the best light. Approach the media and offer to be a reputable source for stories in your mission area. Do the same with politicians and offer to testify on issues of importance to them where you have the knowledge and experience.
Remember I said that people who know you and who work with you will know the truth? The same is true for your nemesis!