Editor’s Note: This is a chapter excerpted from Jennifer Maher’s new book, Nonprofit Nonsense (purchase the book here on this Amazon Affiliate link). Join us for a January webinar led by Jennifer Maher for more on this topic!
CHAPTER 4 : THE DAY I DIED
For six months, I’d been negotiating a deal with a local radio station to put $750,000 worth of spots on-air for a three-month period, with an additional $250,000 in cash sponsorships from local businesses. It was to be the cornerstone of our new campaign to raise funds and heighten awareness for the cause.
Senior executives of the station invited the CEO and me to their offices to finalize the deal. Seated at the board table, we each offered our individual introductions. When it came to my CEO’s turn, he cleared his throat and these are the words that actually came out:
“Thank you for inviting us today. I saw in your front lobby, hanging on the wall, your corporate mission statement. I never imagined that a crass organization like this would have a mission statement. I found that really impressive. Oh, and I’m Joe Joseph, CEO of the XYZ Foundation.”
I peered down, searching for the bullet hole in my heart as I visualized my body sliding under the table, never to be resuscitated. The radio executives looked at each other, stunned and clearly wondering, “Who the hell is this guy?” I could almost imagine slowly raising my hand from under the table to confess, “Yes, he’s with me. I brought him.”
The next person in the introduction sequence opts for the “just pretend it didn’t happen” approach. “Umm, I’m Janet Blip. I’m director of sales for the station.”
I continue to hold my breath. The next person, looking none too pleased, introduces himself: “Hello, I’m Rob Dobb, the general manager of this crass organization.”
And I die. A million-dollar deal and six months of cultivation—gone in one sentence. As the adage states, “It takes years to build up trust, and only seconds to destroy it.” My second had arrived.
Truly, sometimes the best thing you can do is to call out the elephant in the room, and that’s what the radio station manager had done. Mercifully, his staff grabbed the lifeline and began to chuckle. Tension lightened (although I knew no one was going to forget). My CEO just looked confused.
I was lucky that day. The deal still went forward because the idea was bigger than any one of us. I did a lot of tap dancing, downed several antacids and watched as no one really engaged my CEO in any further conversation. His foot-in-mouth didn’t derail the objective, but it put a memorable kink in it.
The good news about nonprofit work is, most of the time, companies want to help. They believe in the mission and the organization as a whole. They see the value and return on investment (ROI) that intrigued them in the first place and look at the staff, CEO included, as a complete deck of cards, not just one king or queen. As long as they have trust and confidence in a handful of players, you can often survive a wild-card boss. But not always. If one truly believes leadership starts and trickles down from the top, then it is only a matter of time before these blunders will permanently offend a potential corporate partner or donor and kill the deal.
I survived a series of other comparable episodes with this particular CEO. He told a waiter, “No, I don’t touch the stuff” when offered a soft drink while dining with the PepsiCo marketing team. He jabbed the executives from KFC during a lunch at their corporate headquarters, “I caught you pulling the skin back on that chicken!”
I needed to seek relief for my growing ulcer. A colleague once offered me a valuable piece of advice: “Always put a board member between yourself and trouble,” she explained. Only a board member can trump a CEO, so I hooked my wagon to the chair of the board’s fundraising committee, a smart, articulate businesswoman who intuitively understood my goals. I convinced my CEO that the best way to keep the board engaged was to have her, the committee chair, accompany me whenever a “title” was required. Thankfully, he supported this strategy, and delegated the corporate appearances to us.
My ulcer subsided, and I continue to believe that may have been the most valuable advice I ever received during my nonprofit career.
NOTE TO SELF: Always put a board member between yourself and trouble.