About two years ago, I was hired to work at an awesome but small non-profit. I spent my first year in a low-end administrative position that quickly became mundane. However, after taking on additional projects and consistently showing my skill and desire for more intensive work, I received a huge promotion to a development position. I now answer directly to the CEO, and things are going pretty well. I just brought a new donor on board, and everyone is singing my praises.
However, a huge mess of awkwardness has arisen.
The woman who held the position before me had years of experience in writing and development. She had a VERY good salary (from what I hear) and was close friends with the CEO. However, her performance was less than stellar. In an entire year in the position, she never brought a donor on board and failed to document most of her contacts. Because of this, the organization asked her to resign early last year. Since I took over eight months ago, I have been trying to fill in the informational gaps. In some cases, I’ve had to start from scratch.
Now, this woman had a list of potentials she was trying to develop, and my CEO (still hung up on how “experienced” she was, IMO) wants me to pursue them. However, I do not know (because of the utter lack of documentation) what the other woman’s relationship to these entities were, and some of them appear to be real long-shots. So now the CEO is asking me to CALL THE TERMINATED EMPLOYEE and ask! I’m so uncomfortable with this request, you have no idea. When she worked here, I was just a low-level associate. Now I’m supposed to tell her that not only have I taken over her old job, I want access to her contacts, too?! It seems insulting. I’m thinking about telling my boss that I just can’t do it. It’s not just an affront to her pride, but also to mine. What do you suggest?
Too Appalled to Call
Dear Too Appalled:
In my opinion, you don’t need her at all. This supposed list she developed is a MacGuffin like the Glengarry Glenn Ross list of magical “leads” that your boss is fantasizing about, and the time you spend dealing with her could be better spent by you developing your own list and your own relationships with those potential donors. People who do any kind of philanthropy can handle the concept of staff turnover and getting communications like “Hi, I’ve recently taken over as Director of Development at Awesome.org, I’d love to invite you to a speaker’s series we are doing.” You are capable of doing your own strategizing, and good news, you’ll probably keep a phone/contact log in the file and/or enter the info into a database so that others can pick up your trail someday if necessary.
It’s possible she can’t talk to you – Ex-employee may be working in a development role for another organization, and want or need to keep whatever relationships she developed for herself and not want to open herself up to a conflict of interest. If the relationships with some of those potential donors are her personal relationships you don’t want to set up a situation where she poisons the well there for you. Right now, most likely your organization has at worst a neutral relationship with these places. This connected, “experienced” person telling her friends about how “those assholes fired me and hired ‘some kid,’ and then they made that kid call me and try to pump me for information about you because the boss was too much of a coward to call” is not going to get you in any doors.
If the boss wants to consult ex-employee, the boss should call her, and on the basis of their history and friendship the boss should ask and pay her to consult. “Ex-employee, can we pay you a consulting rate to document where you were with x, y, and z contracts for us?” or “Ex-employee, can we pay you a consulting fee to speak with Appalled and bring them up to speed on some of the prospects you were developing for us.” If she says “sure” instead of “AHAHA NO”, then boss can say “Ok, here is a consulting contract for a set amount of time with set deliverables,” which would recognize her value and give you and she a structure for your awkward day or two of working together. Deliverables could be something like documenting what contact she made with donors and when, and the contract can put something in writing about conflicts of interest and non-disclosure to protect your organization.
If boss will not pay, boss should not call. If the boss is too chickenshit to make the call, no call should be made. This leaves you in an awkward position, obviously, because ultimately the boss is the boss and they can put their foot down on this if they want to. Scripts for you:
- “Boss, I think that request comes best from you, given your long relationship.”
- “Boss, can you be the one to reach out to Ex Employee first/make the initial call? I think she’d take the request better if it came from you. If she agrees, I can follow up right away with the details.”
- “Boss, are you able to offer her some pay for her time and a set of deliverables? That would make things less awkward for her, and give both of us some structure for working with her.”
Okay, say your boss orders you to call her or email her and you have to do it. Script: “Ex-Employee, this is Appalled from Awesome.org, how are you? Boss asked me to check in with you about Potential Donor List – would you be willing to give me a few minutes to run down the list and just briefly tell me where you left things with each person/org?”
You don’t have to mention that you are in her former job (she’ll get it) or apologize on behalf of your boss (she’ll get it). Keep feelings out of it and make a clean, direct request. If she says no, thank her very much for her time and let it drop. If she gets really sour, acknowledge her feelings – “I agree, this puts you in an awkward position, I am sorry” but don’t get sucked in to badmouthing the organization or your boss or a gossip session. If she will help you, be as quick and professional as possible and then, under your own steam, send her a personal thank you note and “endorse” her on LinkedIn for some skills or write her a brief recommendation there, like “Ex-Employee consulted for me briefly on some development strategies, she was gracious and professional throughout and her expertise was most valuable.” Fundraising is a small world, and even if she wasn’t a great fit for your organization at that time, you are likely to run into her again in your career. Treating her with as much dignity and decency as possible won’t hurt you professionally or stain your soul, and as the person who has the job now, you can afford to be magnanimous.