Why “Can My Board Fire Me?” is the Wrong Question

board, fire, nonprofit, blog

If I had a dime for every time a founder shows more thoughtfulness choosing Mario Kart characters than its board appointments…well….I’d have a boatload of dimes. But the easiest way to maintain an organization’s vision is to spend as much time as possible vetting board members and their fit with said mission. Treat the decision to appoint as seriously as you treat your wifi password, perhaps even a bit more?

Everyone knows that starting a charity is hard work. Hard and tiresome work. So much so, it makes sense for a founder to worry about its investments in and future with the organization. Who’s gonna protect their role in the vision? How can they be certain all their tireless efforts aren’t lost? Especially if they’re serving as a de facto Executive Director.

“Can my board fire me,” is a valid question based on valid concerns. But it’s still the wrong question to ask. Wrong for reasons I’ll run through shortly. And because it’s the wrong question, the solutions founders come up with (entrenching themselves on the board, appointing cronies, creating permanent positions) are the wrong solutions. There are other alternatives, of which I’ll offer in a bit.

The Community Nature

But first, let’s go back to why founders start organization’s in the first place. They identify a need in the community no one is fulfilling; services, education, enforcement or any number of other things. And after brainstorming partnerships, running options and doing a field scan decide it’s a need worth pursuing. Worth pursuing for the betterment of the community.

Now, pause. Note nowhere is there mention of self-preservation. The organization is started in the community for the benefit of the community.

Fast forward to registering with the State. Remember, all those mentions of no one “owning” the organization? And the organization being for the benefit of an “other” (the public at large or a public interest?) That’s because public ownership is fundamentally what makes a charitable organization charitable. Here’s why that matters….

“Nacho” Charity

Whenever I talk about founder’s and ownership it makes think of that funny “nacho” cheese joke (the gist is below for our latecomers).

**pause for giggle**

I use this joke in hopes of softening the blow. Because the cold hard truth is, when founder’s create an organization from the ground up it’s still “nacho” organization. It belongs to the community for the benefit and will of the community.

So we have to reframe the question. Instead of, “Can my board fire me,” we ask, “Can I protect myself and efforts while acting in the best interests of the mission?” To which the answer is yes! Yes, you can.

What Can I Do With My Board?

It’s a fine balance, but there are ways to reward founders for their efforts AND act in the best interests of the mission. You just have to be creative where you focus and/or the vehicles you use. Consider these:

Paper, paper, paper. If a founder takes on an Executive Director role, it’s never too early to look into an employment agreement. This is where expectations, and not meeting expectations, are ironed out so everyone is on the same page. At the same time, why not throw in a severability agreement to cover compensation or reimbursement once the relationship ends? Especially where money or property has been invested. See my post on handling executive compensation here. Once you as a founder know what to expect, you can stop focusing so much on anticipating the unexpected.
Taking a different role.: Founder’s ask yourself, “Do I have to be the Executive Director to fulfill the vision?” Because oftentimes you don’t. What’s wrong with delegating the responsibilities to someone equally competent? And taking on a more advisory role with the organization? Which would eliminate some of the awkwardness around the employer/employee relationship?
Is a corporate charity the way? Some founders just don’t want to take guff from anyone, including a board. In which case, a standard corporate charity may not be the way to go. If maintaining the vision exactly as it is ranks most important, a trust may be a better option. That way, trustees have to jump through hurdles to change the trust’s purpose. To learn more about the different entities click here.
It’s all about that Board, bout’ that Board. If I had a dime for every time a founder shows more thoughtfulness choosing Mario Kart characters than its board appointments…well….I’d have a boatload of dimes. But the easiest way to maintain an organization’s vision is to spend as much time as possible vetting board members and their fit with said mission. Treat the decision to appoint as seriously as you treat your wifi password, perhaps even a bit more?

 

Conclusion

So founders, don’t focus on whether a board can or can’t fire you because they can. That’s the purpose of having a board. Focus on the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission and your ability to steward it doing so.

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