Managing the Impact of a Nonprofit Leader’s Personal Crisis

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A nonprofit’s leaders can seem like superheroes at times, often handling many different roles for the organization while often also keeping up with a “day job” and keeping up with busy family lives. Even the most talented leadership can sometimes face difficult times. When a member of the leadership team suffers a significant personal setback, it can have unexpected consequences for the operation of the nonprofit. This is especially true if the leader’s troubles create potential public-relations problems.

The sort of personal trouble that can create problems for the organization runs a broad gamut. Broadly speaking they can be grouped into two categories. The first is truly personal, and private, matters: a health emergency that renders the leader unable to contribute for a period of time, or a stressful personal circumstance like financial hardship, divorce, or other family matters that take the leader’s concentration away from the nonprofit’s work.

The other category is potentially more serious for the organization as a whole. It captures circumstances where the leader’s personal problems have spilled over into the public sphere. High-profile accusations of wrongdoing, such as an accusation of sexual abuse or financial fraud, can cause significant damage to the individual’s reputation and, by extension, the organization’s as well. If the leader faces significant legal trouble, whether in civil or criminal court, the blowback against the organization may be made worse.

The key to dealing with these kinds of circumstances it to plan for them before they happen. An organization can plan ahead in a number of ways:

  • Draft governance documents to provide mechanisms for dealing with the short- or long-term absence of a director due to illness or incapacity.
  • Consider adopting a leave of absence policy with reasonable guidelines, so important individuals can step away if they need to without creating uncertainty for the future.
  • Incorporate “morality clauses” into leadership job descriptions to allow the organization to move on from an individual who brings undue negative attention upon the nonprofit.
  • Adopt clear policies setting forth the procedures that will be used to address significant public relations problems. This might include designating one person to be the outward-facing individual for the organization. It should also include a requirement that the remaining leadership group reach consensus about how to respond to a problem before official statements are released.

The Church Law Center of California provides legal counsel to secular and religious nonprofits. We help our clients create robust, sustainable governance plans so they can be ready to face challenges. Call us today at (949) 689-0437 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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