Do Your Business Blog
Animal welfare is a rewarding career, but there are certain aspects of the industry that make it extremely challenging. One of those aspects is when the relationship between the Executive Director and the Board becomes strained and Board Members attempt to remove the Executive Director from their position. This is the first in a series to help the Executive Director when their relationship becomes contentious with Board Members. The series is broken up into several components.
1. The warning signs
2. The repercussions for the Executive Director, the Board, the staff and volunteers, the organization, the animals and the community
3. Why this happens
4. Workplace bullying
6. Protecting yourself
Let me first say, I am not a lawyer, a human resource
specialist, or a psychologist. I do have a background in animal welfare, humane
pet businesses, law enforcement and coaching. I am someone who has seen so many
of my friends and colleagues removed from their positions as Executive Director
because the Board’s lack of understanding of their duties and the industry. I
am not saying that all Executive Directors are innocent in their dilemmas, but
many are. Because of this, I decided to do some research on Executive Directors
who have had this happen to them, ones who have weathered the storm, and others
who have managed to avoid this experience. Here are my findings:
The Warning Signs:
- The Board has unrealistic demands of staff
- The Board focuses on day-to-day operations instead of governance and fundraising
- The Board does not follow the chain of command to address problems
- The Board doesn’t know what their fiduciary duties are
- The Board does not fulfill their fiduciary duties
- The Board refuses to listen to industry professionals; but hires external professionals who give poor advice and require extraordinarily large incomes
- The Board is unrealistic about resources
- The Board doesn’t realize that reducing the budget too much will cost animals’ their lives
- The Board has a breakdown in communication; the different committees do not communicate with each other.
- The Board performs quid pro quo
- The Board is made up of large donors who use their position inappropriately
- The Board has no checks and balances or accountability
- The Board lacks of strong leadership
- The Board is not good stewards of donations
- The Board members are performing illegal acts
- The Board fails to adequately perform financial oversight
This is not an all-inclusive list, obviously. What other signs are you aware of?
Please check back next week for more on the repercussion discussion.
I’ve been researching Board and Executive Director Relationships in the Animal Welfare Industry. I will be putting out my findings on all this soon, but I wanted to begin this series by talking about an experience I had this week with my City Council. I was asked to support an ordinance being presented to my City Council to prohibit the sale of puppies in pet stores in town. I admit, I try not to get too heavy in to local government politics but there are some causes I care very deeply about and animal welfare is one of them. This particular meeting was to determine if they would even agree to have a public hearing on this ordinance. It was not publicized because it was a very preliminary meeting; however, it was open to the public to attend.
My town is only about 33,000, but it is a suburb of a major metropolitan area. There are four Wards, with each Ward having two City Council Members representing it. As it turns out, the only pet store selling puppies happens to be in the Ward in which I live. I work out of my home, so my business is also in this same Ward. I have lived in this Ward for about 6 years. I also grew up here and spent the first 18 years of my life in this Ward. I have known about this store for years, but every time I attempted to go in to it, it is closed and locked up. The puppies were all in the back and it was dark, so I couldn’t see the condition of the puppies or the store.
When I heard that a group was trying to outlaw the sale of puppies in the town, I knew exactly what store they were talking about and jumped at the chance to support it. I am a big believer in people having a right to make a living and supporting small business, and I believe this can be done humanely, not at the expense of living things. Furthermore, this is a reasonable ordinance and the presenter was careful not to attack the pet store directly and offered free support to transition it to a more humane model. At one point, grandfathering in the store was even brought up. In addition to the animals affected, the citizens of the community are also affected by the expense of a puppy mill puppy, but I am preaching to the choir here. You all get it. The City Council Members of my Ward clearly do not!
The first Council agenda item was about requiring gun safes for residents who own guns. There was one Member, who turned out to be the representative of my Ward, who was clearly opposed because of people’s civil liberties being violated. I’m not saying that I disagreed with him, but I did disagree with his behavior around his presentation. He went as far as to shut down the City Attorney who was advising the Council about the legalities of it all and yelled, “BULLSHIT” at one of the more liberal Council Members. His only concern about his behavior was when he asked if the camera was on and if he was being taped because they show these proceeding on the local cable network. This reminds me of the famous quote by Thomas Macaulay, “The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.”
My other Ward Council Member, a female, who had been quiet over the gun proceedings, became very vocal over the pet ordinance. The owners of the pet store showed up, so it was apparent that one of the Council Member’s had told them about it. The pet store owners asked for a copy of the packet. The person doing the presentation only had enough for the council and the two additional required packets for filing the ordinance with the clerk. The female Member gave the pet store owners her packet, not even looking over the packet before doing so. This same Member played on her cell phone during the entire presentation and then verbally attacked the presenter after the presentation. The male Ward Member yawned, looked around and his body language gave every indication that he was bored and not paying attention.
If you count the Mayor, there are 9 members of the Council total. My two Ward members made it very clear that they were opposed it at every turn. A third Member, who was respectful and professional, said he would oppose it as well. The others asked thoughtful questions and were respectful and professional. They did not say what their decisions were, but asked for more information. I respect that.
How is it that they are willing to represent an inhumane business that is in my Ward when I represent a humane business in the same Ward and live in that Ward as well? What makes them think that it is okay to behave as badly as they did being an elected official? Even if they had behaved professionally and been respectful, and opposed the ordinance, I would have been okay with the situation even if I respectfully disagreed. However, their terrible behavior was so appalling you can bet they will not get my vote next time around. Furthermore, I will start paying considerably closer attention to local government politics in the future.
How is this related to my Board and Executive Director Relations project you ask? I see just as bad behavior, if not worse behavior, played out in Board rooms throughout the country. What makes it okay for people to think it is okay to act this way? Please give me your feedback as to the reasons you believe that we tolerate this behavior! Stay tuned for my upcoming project….
Animal shelters serve the community and its animals. The challenge is that the community has a love/hate relationship with the shelter. If an owner has to reclaim his animal, he may be thankful that his pet is safe and sound at the shelter, but resents receiving a ticket and paying the impound fees. People who have no alternative but to relinquish their pets may appreciate that shelters take in surrenders, but often resent having to pay a surrender fee. Many times, people want to add a pet to their families by saving a shelter animal, but resent the adoption process and think the fees are too expensive. This conflict is the root cause of the sheltering cycle.
As a shelter, the government agencies that you contract with also answer to the community. Your Board of Directors must answer to both the community and government entities. The Board has to negotiate contracts with the government and make sure the services being offered are understood and embraced by the community. If the public isn’t educated about or don’t understand your mission, then the Board has to manage public relations. Animal advocates are often the most vocal and are relentless if they believe the shelter isn’t doing its job or does not adhere to their view of animal welfare. The result is that the Board spends more time on the defensive, fearing bad press and how it could affect contract negotiations and donations, than they do on activities that actually help the animals. The Board passes this pressure on to the Executive Director.
The Executive Director becomes worried and afraid for her job when the Board starts placing on all kinds of pressure on her. In turn, the Executive Director starts coming down hard on her management team about every mistake (perceived or real) that her staff makes and she begins to micromanage out of fear. Management begins to fear for their jobs and begin to go to the Executive Director for all decisions for fear of upsetting her. Furthermore, management begins to point fingers and come down hard on all the line staff.
The line staff becomes terrified. They can’t make a decision without asking management for fear of being written up, yelled at or fired. In addition to only making minimum wage (or slightly higher), they deal with animal neglect and abuse, animal abandonment, animal euthanasia, nasty customers screaming at them and are extremely overworked. Now on top of everything else, they are afraid of their bosses, afraid to go to work and to make mistakes.
The employees start to rise up in revolt. They take advantage of the community’s displeasure with the shelter and reach out to them to put more pressure on the Board and Executive Director. The employees get fired or quit, get lawyers and go to the newspaper.
The bad publicity stops donations to the shelter and people stop adopting animals. Meanwhile, animals keep coming in. Euthanasia goes up dramatically. Because donations have slowed to a trickle, more employees get laid off. The remaining staff and volunteers are overworked, more than they already were. The quality of the animal care goes down because of time constraints and compassion fatigue. The community and everyone down the chain gets angrier.
How do we fix this cycle? First of all, everyone in the cycle must raise their standards. We can’t control what others do, but we can control our responses. Everyone in this chain MUST do what is ethically correct in the given circumstance and be willing to stand behind that decision. Everyone in this cycle must be willing to accept responsibility for their decisions and actions. We must be willing to admit when mistakes are made, and do what we can to fix them and improve the process as we go along. We’re all here for the welfare and love of animals. Even the most annoying members of our community who draw negative attention to a shelter to further their cause are being vocal because of their love for animals. Educating the public, taking the time to explain reasons for costs or that the adoption process is purposeful in how it screens applicants and letting our actions show that we love animals too – that’s why we do what we do – will go far in closing the gap of misunderstanding. The scenario above is all too common, and though it may start with the public at large, the cycle can and should stop at the Board of Directors and Executive Management level. The fear-based decision making and micromanaging should never be allowed to take hold, let alone trickle down to the people working directly with the animals and the public. Remember, Board members have a “duty of loyalty” obligation to put the interests of the organization first at all times. Alleviate all unnecessary pressure on the shelter staff and show your community that we all want the same outcome.