Today I want to share with you one of the most powerful strategies that I ever employed in my non-profit career.

I know that this won’t work in every circumstance, but it will in many.

When I became the administrator at a small, private elementary school, I realized that I had taken a position that had a relatively high turn over rate. It seemed the school averaged a new administrator every two to three years.

And, according to the pattern I discovered, when it was time for the administrator to leave, it was a very emotional, often dramatic ordeal. There was a power struggle, a board vs. administrator disagreement, hurt feelings on both sides, mis-communication going both ways, and then there was some kind of blow-up argument resulting in the administrator being fired or resigning. Throughout all of this, the tension was palpable. (Does this sound familiar at all?)

Then a new administrator was hired, and the old one was forgotten, never to be heard from again. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

So, when I was hired, I learned that the previous guy caused all sorts of headaches at the school. He started off with high hopes, but disagreements with the board over curriculum soon morphed into other arguments and the school’s ability to lead was severely compromised.

As I was settling into my new job, I naturally inquired about him and the other administrators that came before me. It was hard to get anyone to share information. No one wanted to dredge up all the hard feelings that still existed.

But, I was brand new to the school and didn’t know anybody, so I was curious and without prejudice, one way or the other.

As I started reading through documents, getting acquainted with my role, I saw the name of one particular past administrator pop up over and over again. From what I could tell, this woman did a lot of good for the school. She created a lot of very sound policies, and enrollment during her tenure was steady.

Bringing Up an Uncomfortable Subject

So, I started asking about her. No one wanted to be specific with me about why she left, but I did learn that since she departed (about five years prior), she had not stepped foot in the school or talked to anyone associated with it. She still lived in the same town and worked nearby, but she might as well have been on the other side of the world.

That seemed crazy to me. There must have been some kind of mistake. From what I was reading, this lady was good for the school. What could have happened? Although I didn’t say anything, it made me wonder a bit about my own future departure from the school. It made me a little nervous.

Making a Connection

So, I decided to call her up. When I finally got her on the phone, I introduced myself and asked if I could have a minute of her time. Silence. Then, hesitantly, she said yes and asked how she could help me.

I told her that all I wanted was to introduce myself and thank her for all the great work she had done while at the school. I told her I had been reading through a bunch of school records and was really impressed with what she had been able to do. Then I asked if I ever ran into something I needed help with or didn’t understand, could I call her.

She was stunned. Five years of zero communication with the school and then, “BOOM!” Right out of the blue. Some guy she had never heard of before called to thank her and asked if he could use her as a “mentor”.

I think that maybe she was in shock, but she said I could call her anytime I wanted. I thanked her again, very enthusiastically, and said good-bye.

Well, it didn’t take long, but we finally met in person and ended up having a very warm and professional relationship. I often asked her for advice and input. She was a huge help for me. Eventually, she was able to walk back into the school building. I know that was hard for her.

I never did get to the bottom of why she left, but I could tell it was a very painful memory for her and for some people on the board.

But, over time, we were able to heal that wound and bring her back into the community.

A Common Occurrence

Sadly, this situation, where a leader of a non-profit gets burned-out and leaves on a bad note happens quite often. All the time he or she spent fully engrossed in the job seems to have been for nothing.

The work can be very demanding and people tend to pour their hearts and souls into the mission. This often results in very long hours and the job takes over the leader’s life. It’s not surprising that the turn over rate can be so high.

But, it is incredibly short-sighted on the part of non-profit boards and subsequent administrations, not to keep these relationships with past directors healthy. Unless there was some sort of crime committed by the administrator, there has to be at least some scrap of usefulness left in past leaders.

Does Your Non-Profit Throw People Away?

If you are working in a non-profit today, ask yourself, what is your organization’s relationship with past directors like? Of course, each person presents different circumstances, but overall, does you group seek to maintain healthy relationships with past employees, valuing and honoring their service, or does your group discard people, treating individuals simply as resources, only good until they are used up?

It’s funny, sad really, to tell you that my time at the school likewise ended very badly. Same pattern as I outlined above.  There were many hurt feelings, and since I left, over three years ago now, I haven’t heard from a single person. I’ve run into a few folks in the grocery store, and talked briefly, but nothing at all from the school itself.

I’d be hurt, if I didn’t know that that’s how this particular school operates.  I’ve seen the pattern repeated over and over again. But, the thing is, I would probably be very receptive to a phone call like the one I made, and I think I could still be useful on some level to them.

Of course, there are situations that call for a total break.  I understand that.  Hoever, I think, those situations are extreme and and should be rare.  People are worth trying to save.

It’s a shame that some people can’t get past their own issues for the good of their organization.

I hope your non-profit isn’t like this.

Photo by: Kanko*

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Posted on 25 February 2011

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