A Nonprofit Executive’s Surprising Farewell

SchruteIn an exit letter that is as rare as it is remarkable, a resigning nonprofit executive’s final act of leadership is an apology.

Yes, that’s right, an apology.

And it’s a real apology at that – not a Dwight Schrute version. This one that includes an acknowledgment of harm, ownership of full responsibility for the transgression, a statement of empathy for those who were hurt and a promise to do better in the future.

This rare artifact of modern-day management via email came today and I immediately reached out to the author to express my appreciation – and ask for his permission to share it.

We live in a time where the spiritual gifts of humility, repentance and reconciliation are hard to find – especially in our institutions. While I’m sure there’s great pain behind the lessons this executive director has learned, his willingness to admit them, own them, and learn from them is refreshing and sadly, uncommon.

I’ve redacted the names to protect the innocent (and guilty). Let me know in the comments any others you’d add to this list of lessons for leaders.

From the outgoing executive director of a medium-sized nonprofit in the idealism sector. (Note: This is not the nonprofit with which I am often associated.) Watch and learn, American management:

“This Friday will be my last day in [snip], at least for the time being! After serving [snip] in many different capacities over the past 15 years, including the last 3 as your Executive Director, the time has come for me to move on. I take up my new position as Executive Director of the [snip] on Monday, 1 July – and our paths will cross again, I assure you!

Like everyone else on this precious, fragile planet of ours, I have my flaws and weaknesses – and I make mistakes. You all know I made plenty of mistakes as ED [snip]! I did my best to move [snip] forward as a professional organisation undertaking immensely important work and worthy of international recognition and acclaim. I did not always succeed in moving us forward in this direction and in some cases I set us back. I learned a lot of important lessons about leadership and about management of a highly creative and unwieldy organisation like [snip]. Sadly, many of the lessons I learned came too late to undo the damage I had already done by my naively enthusiastic courses of action. Please accept my heartfelt apologies for those instances that sometimes cost us dearly in terms of lost support, lost staff, lost momentum …

For what it’s worth, here are some of the lessons I learned as ED:
1. Listen more
2. Be more humble
3. Be more willing to let go of my own preconceptions
4. Be more willing to compromise and accept other viewpoints
5. Be more willing to discuss and find consensus before pronouncing by executive fiat
6. Delegate more, trust more, give more power to others
7. Be more positive and encouraging
8. Give more appreciation and thanks
9. Be more patient and understanding when things are not going right
10. Always take the responsibility rather than blame others
11. Work more collaboratively and collectively
12. Be more welcoming
13. Plan my time more effectively
14. Prioritise more carefully
15. Be better at articulating and explaining the rationale for things
16. Be sure to say what I think and not just think that I said it
17. Be more centred and grounded before going into difficult situations
18. Write things down and make sure everybody sees it
19. Give clearer instructions, keep written records, hold people accountable to what’s written
20. Get people to sign off that they have seen and understood each policy and instruction before holding them accountable for it.

Feel free to add to this list and to let me know what other lessons you think I should have learned by now!

I am taking these lessons to heart as I start my new job with [snip]. My fervent hope, dear friends, is that you will take these lessons to heart as well, and will insist that these lessons are not lost or forgotten as [snip] transitions to a new ED and a new board.

Finally, I plead with each of you to stick with [snip] during these difficult times, to continue doing your very best to advance the mission of [snip] and to support the transition process now underway, and to hope and pray and insist that a new ED and board are appointed as soon as possible who are capable of taking [snip] through its second decade and on to even greater heights than we can yet imagine.

I am thankful to each and every one of you for your contributions to [snip], and for your part in educating me as an ED. Be well and best wishes for your futures, wherever they may take you.

What have you learned about leadership, authority, responsibility, and management? Does non-profit power corrupt as easily as for-profit power? What are the key mitigating forces? What happens when people who have institutional power don’t know how to use it well? What are the keys to using institutional power effectively? Let me know what you think.

1 thought on “A Nonprofit Executive’s Surprising Farewell”

  1. M. Maeder wrote: One of the most effective questions is, “What’s an ED good for?”. You gotta add value even if that value is “only” listening, helping people feel part of something bigger than themselves, and helping them focus on what matters most. I’ve learned that leadership is a good way to annihilate the self, and come into contact with one’s true nature, highest calling. If done well, and from a selfish perspective, it will strip you bare and open you like nothing else….making you ready to serve. Non-profit power corrupts too, with an added dose of righteousness. Keys to using institutional power: know yourself, serve the greater good not yours. You are just a servant.

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