Dear Joan: HELP! Our Entire Staff Quit!

by Joan Garry

“I am a board member for an organization where the entire staff has resigned. What is the best way to resolve this with no staff and no resources to hire any?”

“Dear Joan” is an ongoing series where Joan responds to readers who send emails asking for nonprofit advice, practical solutions, or just general therapy (Joan tries not to make direct comments on a reader’s psychological state — that’s called practicing without a license).

As part of my upcoming free workshop called How to Build a Thriving Nonprofit, I created a Facebook group where I’ll be running Q&As during the workshop. More than 3,000 people have already joined!

The quality of conversation in the group has been terrific. Members have already helped each other:

  • Find 501c3-friendly financial institutions and great VOIP phone systems
  • Improve each other’s elevator speeches
  • Find resources to help with strategic planning
  • Prepare for a new ED position
  • Overcome burnout
  • Create systems to stay on top of grant deadlines, and so much more

And that’s just some of what’s happened in the last 24 hours.

(If you’d like to participate in the free workshop and Facebook group, click here.)

So for “Dear Joan” this week, I want to answer some of the messier questions posed in the group.

Let’s get to it…


Dear Joan:

I am a board member for an organization where the entire staff has resigned. What is the best way to resolve this with no staff and no resources to hire any?

– No Clue

Dear Clueless:

My eyes became as big as saucers when I read this. I get dozens of emails a week but never one like this. I needed advice myself to answer this one and so I reached out to a few E.D.s and board members for their thoughts.

First off, there are organizations that do wonderful work without staff. The board is highly engaged and pulls together volunteer leadership. So staff is not necessarily the magic bullet.

But it sounds like there is a much greater problem here.

My friend Bob Adler who also consults for nonprofits (and is in the Facebook group) asked a few swell questions:

  • What are we trying to resolve?
  • Is the board committed to the mission and its responsibilities?

If the answer to question #2 is ‘yes,’ this organization needs an emergency board meeting. This board is now in charge and has to decide what’s next.

Here’s hoping the board chair has some leadership skills and can navigate the board to drive the organization back to health. If the board is weak (and there is some clue that this may be the case if the entire staff resigned), can one board member identify a pro bono nonprofit resource to facilitate a discussion about the future of the organization? Is there still a need for the organization? Can its mission be filled by another organization?

Bottom line: the board needs to take control ASAP. The buck stops with all of you.

– Joan


Dear Joan:

We are a relatively small nonprofit dedicated to ending substance abuse in our community and supporting individuals who are struggling to help keep them clean and sober. Our focus is a city of about 50,000 but our reach is broader – we touch much of the county we live in.

I really want to explore corporate support – we do such important work in our community – do you have some kind of template for a corporate sponsor proposal.

– Creative Fundraiser Wannabe

Dear Creative Fundraiser:

First off, hats off to you. I spend so much time talking about how vulnerable nonprofits are when they are overly reliant on a single source of revenue. You score big points for creativity.

Secondly, I don’t have a template. In fact, a template would be difficult to create because there is no one-size-fits-all to relationships between nonprofits and businesses. There really can’t be because they are not sponsorships. They are relationships.

Actually, they are partnerships. That’s how you need to think about them. Any company that will support your work will want something in return. This doesn’t make them bad people. It makes them smart business people.

Back in the day, companies had philanthropic dollars to support the communities they are in. And some still do. But much more often, sponsorship money comes from the marketing department. And those dollars have to show a return.

Marketing is about either broad reach or a targeted focus on a particular population and to build a partnership you have to make the case that either your target ties to their marketing objectives or that your reach is broad and that the volume of reach is of value to them.

I’m not telling you to abandon your creativity. Just put yourself in the shoes of the business you approach.

– Joan


Dear Joan:

Is it important to establish certain boundaries with our board chairs around supervision? Is it expected that our chair will share everything with the Executive Committee of the board? Do you have suggestions on how to have both a safe and confidential supervisorial relationship while also keeping the Executive Committee fully informed?

– Working With My Co-Pilot 

Dear Co-Pilot:

Great question and the answer could go a number of ways. First off, I fully agree with an E.D. colleague of yours who told you that his number one rule in his relationship with his Board Chair was, “No surprises.”

That said, it might be worth spending a few minutes considering some of the issues or topics you feel anxious about making their way to the Executive Committee. I bet there is some kind of common thread. Maybe you can talk about that common thread (without getting specific) with your chair and discuss if there can be a “cone of silence” on some issues that the two of you kick around until they are well formed enough to go to the Executive Committee?

Fundamental to this advice is trust. If you have built a relationship of mutual respect and trust with your co-pilots many things are possible and your organization will thrive as a result. If trust is absent, both of you will be more guarded. And being guarded closes you off to honesty and possibilities.

– Joan

If you have further advice for any of my readers above, please share in the comments below.

And finally, I hope you’ll join us in my upcoming free workshop “How to Build a Thriving Nonprofit” as well as in the associated Facebook group. Super valuable stuff. You can register here.

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