In this episode of The Strategic Nonprofit podcast, we have Brandy Eldridge, the Executive Director of CASA for Children and Texarkana Children’s Advocacy Center to discuss hiring, firing and growing your team within a nonprofit organization.

In this episode we cover:

  • Difference between operational duties and board duties
  • The grey line between the Board and The Executive Director
  • How Brandy hires new staff
  • How to onboard new staff effectively
  • When to let employees go
  • Why stacking the Board is bad for your organization
  • How strategic planning plays an important part in sustaining growth in a nonprofit organization
  • How the Executive Director plays an important part in cultivating a culture in an organization

Brandy Eldridge is the Executive Director of CASA for Children and Texarkana Children’s Advocacy Center. She stands with a team of people who work every day to make the world a better place for children that have suffered from child abuse and neglect. She and her husband have a podcast together called The Beta Male Revolution where they discuss modern roles in relationships. They are part of the Practice of the Practice Podcast Network.

Podcast Transcript

I’m the Executive Director of a nonprofit. We actually house two nonprofits under our umbrella. The first one is CASA for Children and the second one is Texarkana Children’s Advocacy Center. Both of them are very different, but still all involve child abuse.

For us, both of those, Texarkana Children’s Advocacy Center is under chapter leadership. It’s a national organization and then same with CASA for Children. When a hotline is called, when a report is being made of abuse and it involves a child, the investigators bring the children to our center where we do a forensic interview on the child, provide advocacy for the child. A lot of times you see like a room with a mirror and you can see through it. We’re somewhat set up like that. 

The reason is because when a child is making an outcry, or telling their story of abuse, in the past, before advocacy centers were around, the child would have to tell it to the police detective, to the child protective services, to an attorney. Sometimes they could tell that same story of abuse seven times. Advocacy centers are a way to work with all the people involved in the investigation, so a child tells their story one time and does not have to repeat that trauma over and over again. We have trained forensic interviewers that can ask these questions and just find the truth. That’s what they’re trained in to do. That’s what happens at our center. 

So, they bring the child to us, we have an advocate that greets them, the family, or whoever has brought them, and we walk them through this entire process. Once the child has made the outcry, we work with the team of people doing the investigation. We then provide the child with either medical, therapy, or both. If the child needs a sexual assault exam, we provide that in-house. We also provide therapy for as long as the child needs it, and if their family needs it forever. We have kids that have come back to us, children that have come back to us after they’ve turned 18 because they’ve had some triggers. They come back to us and we do the therapy with them. This is all free. All free services. 

That’s on one side of our building, and then on the other side of our building is CASA for Children which is another national organization that we are a chapter, a member of, and we walk with the child through the journey of foster care. If the child is taken out of their home for child abuse or neglect, most of what we see on that side of the building is for neglect. 

They’re taken away. They’re taken out of their home. We provide a volunteer for them to follow them along the journey because, oftentimes, in foster care systems, their move from foster care to foster care. No doing of the own child. Child has done nothing wrong. They’re immediately removed from their home, their friends, their families, their schools, their churches, their community. They’re taken out of it in an instant and they’ve done nothing wrong and they’re placed in a home. It could be a group home. It could be an individual’s home where they’re expected to know the rules and adjust very quickly when they’re just dealing with trauma. 

We put a volunteer with them to follow them through that entire journey in hopes that it is reconciliation with the family always first. If not, reconciliation with the family, then we walk along with them in the journey to where they can maybe be adopted into a family and start over again. 

That’s what our organization does. I am very grateful and very blessed to be the Executive Director of them. 

Same thing. 

I am from Texas. That’s an interesting thing you brought up. 

We actually are on the state lines. Our organization serves ten different counties; we serve two different states. We serve Texas and Arkansas in the surrounding area. We also are an hour from Oklahoma and 30 minutes from Louisiana. We’re right here on the border. 

We’re right on the border. We use disclosure. We use outcry. We have had to – which is a great segue into policies and procedures and language is that we’ve had to make sure that we use common terms for all states. Even in our policies and procedures, we always go with whatever the highest of all of the states and all of the organizations we work with. When it comes to policies, we will go with the toughest policy that covers all of it. That’s a good segue into that next part if you want to. 

That’s such a huge question that could take hours to unpack. I think just that question alone has so many different caveats and just branches that could go off. 

In just general, the rules and responsibility of board is very different from the roles and responsibilities of the CEO or the ED. Oftentimes, you and your listeners obviously know that when a nonprofit is started, a lot of times it is started by somebody that has a lot of heart and a mission to change the world for whatever it is they’re starting. 

Thirty years ago when CASA and the Children’s Advocacies were started, it was because they saw kids falling through the crack, and they saw kids that needed to not tell their story and be retraumatized and help in child abuse. These people had great hearts. We oftentimes see that nonprofits are started, and they have a board come along and they all just really work together. As the board grows, those rules change. As a nonprofit grows, those rules have to change. It’s very different depending on where you are in your nonprofit. If you’re a grassroots or if you’re 30 years into it. 

I think the main role of a board, which will go into HR, is the guidance. Making sure you have the resources you need, the ethics part of it, the funding part of it, and just the oversight. Really, the responsibility of the ED is often in smaller organizations also the HR person. 

You have this person that has started with this huge heart that wants to change the world if it’s for foster care or if it’s for saving animals, but they may not have the oversight, the business background to be able to grow the organization through the HR aspect of it and that can be very hairy sometimes. When you have an Executive Director, a CEO who doesn’t know about HR issues and they have these hiring and firing practices that they don’t understand, it can get them in very sticky situations and that’s part of the oversight of the board of building and creating a diversified board that can help you in that process, until you can manage that piece of it and sending the Executive Director to the right trainings. 

In my opinion, the Executive Director, if they don’t have an HR person, is the HR person and you have to deal with hiring and firing and policies and procedures and evaluations. A lot of those things that you learn in business school and a lot of Executive Directors. In fact, most Executive Directors are not business-oriented people. That’s why the board play such a vital role in selecting and getting that board built that can help you in those areas. 

Did that answer your question?

That’s a great question. I feel like that’s where a lot of boards and ED’s either buttheads or get entangled. I think it’s very good, depending on what you feel. Every nonprofit is different how you view the board. I view the board as oversight. I view the board as they hired me to do a job and they are my accountability. They are my resource to do that. Anything dealing with personnel issues is definitely something I deal with. 

The only time I let the board know is if something is going on so they get a heads up, but the hiring, the firing, the evaluations, all of that stuff is what the board hired me to do. I take that job very seriously. The board’s job is to evaluate me and make sure I’m doing it right. 

Also, I think a smart thing is, most board should, if not, have a liaison on the board that if there are issues with the ED and staff, that they have somebody that they can go and talk to on the board. One person on the board and a liaison on the board. 

If the ED doesn’t have those practices set up to where the staff feels comfortable coming to the ED or maybe it’s gone on too long and they just feel like this ED is not going to listen to them, then they have that one designated person on the board that can just be a listening person to take that information to the ED and have the conversation with the ED. Give that ED a chance to make it right, to fix whatever is going on in their organization. 

If that doesn’t work, then I think it’s that job of that liaison to take it then to the board, but there has to be that accountability. Have I had people go to my liaison? Yes, I have. Have I tried to make things right? Absolutely. 

Most often, it’s a miscommunication of some sort. It’s my job as the ED to take that responsibility of the miscommunication whether it was my fault or not. It is perceived as my fault, so it’s my job to eat crow and make it right with my staff. It’s the board’s job to bring those issues to me in a non-confrontational way like, “Hey, so and so came and talk to me. These were their concerns.” I may find it valid or not valid, it doesn’t matter. Then, it’s my job to make it right so that my board earns that trust and that I earn that trust with them. 

I’m going to give you a disclosure is that most of the reasons why things work right is because I had failed at them in the past, or I’ve seen them fail in the past. Definitely taking responsibility because I believe that we make maybe our biggest growth through failures. 

For sure for having a staff that calls me on it that says, “Yeah, we do this really badly. This is something we need to do right.” I even think about it until I’ve got a girl sitting in her office and she doesn’t have the passcode to get on their computer and nobody has greeted her because it was her first day at work, those kind of things. Then, COVID puts a spin on everything.

Now we have a packet, a hiring packet, but I think before that is how we advertise or how we bring people aboard is big for us. Again, we are in the different stage of growth than some nonprofits so this could work, but I hope some of these ideas work. 

I have a team of people that when we hire, there’s a team of us. Ultimately, it’s my decision, but I don’t want that because if I bring somebody on, that’s Brandy’s pick. That’s Brandy’s person. That doesn’t, for me, create cohesion in the teams. 

Now, I have wanted people on there before and have pushed to hire that person, but at the end of the day, if the team of people I put on that hiring committee don’t feel comfortable with this person, that’s not good because they won’t accept them when they come in, they won’t take them under their wing. They won’t necessarily bond with them in a way that I need people to bond. For me, culture is the number one thing in my organization that we protect, and I tell people that. 

In our hiring phase, they go through several interviews. The first one is with a team of people – I possibly won’t be in that interview. I want to see what everybody feels and thinks, and then a second interview with the different team of people and it may be three people, it may be four, maybe two. If both those teams recommend this person, then all have a final interview with them where I just talk expectations and what we expect as this person on boards with us. If they can agree to that, then we go into, “Okay, here’s the pay. Here’s how many days you get off. Here’s all the HR issues.” 

One of the things that I set in that last interview with me is “I need you to know my expectations upfront, and here they are.” It’s basically I’m going to protect the culture of this team over anything else. If you are a gossip, you don’t belong here. If you can’t be positive with your talk, you can’t be in this place because we deal with trauma. You have to leave your issues at home. 

With saying that, we’re a family. Everybody’s going to have a bad day. Our second one we do is we give grace. Grace for people that have had bad days. Grace when we’ve messed up. It’s okay to make mistakes. You might get in trouble for it. You might get your hand slapped, but then we start over and it’s a fresh start the next day. 

Then, team. You’ve got to have everybody’s back. If we can’t depend on you, like we end up being family, if you’re going to have a bad day and say something mean, you need to go to that person. You need to make it right because we’re a team, we’re a family here. We can’t cause any disruption in that team because of the work that we do, and the things that we put out in the world. You may have a problem with somebody in the office, but outside the office, we’re a united front because our community needs us, the kids in our community need us. Protect the culture. We don’t want gossiping. We don’t let bad things say and protect anonymity. All those things. 

Teamwork and grace. I’ve had to use all of those where I’ve had staff members come to me and say, “Hey, you’re really screwing this part up. I’ve had to say, “You know what, you’re right. I’m so sorry. I’ve been a jerk. Can you allow me some grace?” and “Thank you for bringing it to me.” Being able to have those conversations and start over fresh the next day, I think that culture, culture, culture is number one for us protecting it. 

I don’t know. You need to ask the staff about that. I think half the time they love me, half the time they hate me. About 50/50.

That’s another thing. You can’t go in there. I think sometimes the staff wants you to be there and be their best friend sometimes. Then, when they realize you can’t be, and they realize the responsibility that you have, you’re going to make some people mad. 

Anytime a new role of an ED is coming in, there’s going to be a different leadership style, there’s going to be a different way of doing things. Your staff, unfortunately, is the one that suffers from it. You may have a big turnover and people leave, but then you have the opportunity to hire the people that you want to set that culture. I think it’s getting feedback constantly from your staff and my staff feels very equipped to give me feedback. Sometimes it’s hard, but if we’re going to make a difference in the world, that ego is going to be crushed constantly. 

Which they still do.

I think that’s just people in general if they’re healthy or not healthy. I think that when people feel healthy, when they’re really doing the work on themselves, that they can do that. I feel like for ED’s who are doing work on themselves, they can accept it. A lot of people, or any manager, a lot of people don’t feel like they could go to that person and say those things because of what the repercussions are going to be if they do say it. That’s for us to do the work so that they do feel comfortable saying that. 

There’s probably once a week somebody calls me or emails me and says, “I made them mad. I did something wrong. I have to look at it from my point of view of, well, it wasn’t what I intended it to be but that was the perception, so I’m going to have to apologize for it and try to work on it. That is creating that culture. There are probably people in my organization that can’t stand me. They’re not going to say it, but they can’t stand me. That may be there. 

It’s very important for ED’s to know – it was something I learned when I was in education is that when you are a boss, unfortunately, everyone is going to critique you whether you’re good or whether you’re bad. They are going to look for your faults. They are going to say, “They can do your job better than you.” They may be right, but they don’t have your job. 

Part of that is knowing that it is an island. You are alone and it can be lonely because you can’t go to your staff and tell them “What’s really going on when you had to let somebody go. They can’t know those details and they don’t know all the details that led up to that. They may hate you for firing somebody that’s worked there for 15 years. They don’t know what’s gone into that. It’s very important to give information, but it’s also very important to protect information. There are a lot of things until you’re in this position, but they are not going to understand, and you have to be okay with that. 

You have to be okay with them not loving you all the time. You’re not there to make everyone feel that you’re their best friend. You’re there because you have important work to do and you’ve got to move an organization forward. It is a lonely, lonely place sometimes and that’s why you have to have people and a community of your own that either other Executive Directors or other people that you can work with and ask these questions to and sometimes that’s the board. 

The board plays that very vital role that you can go to your board president and say, “This is what’s going on.” You might hear some rumblings of it. “I just want you to know, I’m not coming here to tell you that it’s my side or no side. I just want you to be aware this is what I’ve been doing. Here’s my documentation. It’s not easy, but this is something that I may have to do. This is something…” It’s always good to give your board a heads up on what’s going on. It doesn’t mean that they have any choice in the matter, and they don’t have any – That mean they can’t tell you not to or they can. They have that right to tell you, but it’s not their role, if that makes sense. Their role is to support you and to trust you and you have to earn that trust with your board so that when you do the hard thing, they know the full picture. 

The ED’s role is not to form a board with all of their best friends and all the people that they want on the board. That, to me, is stacking a board. That is very dangerous. It’s a very slippery slope. In nonprofits, it’s no hidden thing that you see when you read in the papers that ED is fired because they stole money. It happens a lot. Or the ED was using resources that shouldn’t have been used for years and then they were finally fired after that. 

Stacking the board is the ED or CEO building a board of their friends and their people they want on the board. It’s very dangerous, 1) it’s not diversified. You’re going to get the same answers, the same thing. You’re going to get a lot of agreeableness. It may be a very fun board and it may be a very easy board to pass things, but it’s not smart. It is unethical, on my opinion, to stack a board. It’s not your job to build your board. It’s your board’s job to build a board.

In the beginning, it may be that you know a lot of these people. You’ve had to choose them because you started this nonprofit, but then it’s the board’s job to continue to grow that, to put those things in place where they have terms and they’re rolling on and rolling off. Because if you’re not getting a diversified point of view, you are not growing a healthy organization. If you’re just having board people that are giving you yes’ to everything you want, that’s not good growth. That’s not perspectives and point of views that you need to grow a whole healthy organization. It will be harder with the diverse board, but it will be better for your organization, as a whole, when you diversified your board and you haven’t stacked it in your favor. That’s what it means to stack a board. 

There’s research that shows that the founders of organizations take it so far and then they need to let go of the reigns and move more of a CEO businessperson in there. There’s so much research on the growth of organizations once the founder has stepped aside and really given reigns to a businessperson. 

Sometimes the CEO, much like the founder, can still be that figure head and that works, but they need to have a good director working with them so that figure head is very much shaking hands and going out in the community and giving the message, but it’s not involved in the day-to-day operations. That’s very smart for founders to do. They’ve got the heart, they’ve got the passion for it, but they might not necessarily have that business mind for growth and sustainability for the organization. If they need to step aside and make themselves more of a CEO and hire an Executive Director or hire a COO and a CFO, that’s really where you’re going to see some growth. 

It’s smart to surround yourself of a team of people. On mine, I have a director team and there’s four of them. If I’m out of line or I’m not doing something and moving it in the direction it needs to go, I have four other people that I’m discussing my ideas with so it’s never just my idea. 

Sometimes it is my idea and I’m going to push for it because I know it’s right, but I’ve still got push back from them. There’s still that accountability that’s saying, “Well, have you thought of this? Have you thought of this?” So that we’re not on our own when it comes to decision-making because if we don’t have a diverse point of view, we’re only going to see things one way, and we’re only going to move in one direction then that’s not healthy all the time. We wouldn’t do that with any other organization. We would surround ourselves and we’d get the best advice and part of an ED is hiring people that are smarter than you. The best ED is the one that’s going to hire people that are smarter than them and can take advice from other people. 

It’s only my point. It’s only my opinion. It may not be that good, but I believe that with all my heart: hire smarter people than me. 

That’s a great question. Again, that’s one of those big, huge questions. 

You have that start up, that grassroots initiation, and then you move more into that growing, but really the hard part comes. The growing is kind of the fun part when you see movement and you see momentum. But then you’ve got that sustainability part which is often sometimes the hardest part. How are going to do this long-term in growth? Because growth can happen very suddenly, but how do we sustain it? How do we diversify our budget? How do we diversify our board? How do we hire on? How do we begin to give benefits? Just those things that as you grow you start thinking, how do we serve more people? How do we grow in the midst of COVID and fundraise? Then, you’ve got that grassroots growing stage, then you’ve got your sustainability stage. 

Then, you’ve got this phase when you’ve been there a minute that you can almost become stagnant. That is very, again, dangerous part when you’ve had sustainability, but then everything’s working really well, and you become stagnant. When you become stagnant, you have two choices – and this is where a lot of nonprofits either shut down or really rise to the top. Those are not times in growth. That’s a cycle that’s going to start again. You’ll either grow or you’ll have this renewal phase. Then, you’re going to hit another plateau, another stagnant point a couple of years later and you’re going to either go down and lose staff and become stagnant. Or you’re going to hit another bump and go up again. 

Once you’ve gone through that grassroots, and growing, and sustainability stage that you start to see dips. That’s when sometimes it’s a change in ED, a change in board, a change in staff member. Adding things on. Taking things away. Going back to the basics sometimes is what organizations do, but that’s really where your board comes in for that strategic planning piece of it. That’s a huge role for them and your staff is coming together in saying where are we going? What are we doing? What are our goals. What aren’t our goals? What is our mission and our vision? Are we getting away from that? Do we need to come back to that? Are we growing in different areas where we may need to split? 

There’s so many places in that, but I think that’s the part that Executive Directors and boards feel good about is that stagnation and that’s probably the place that they don’t need to feel good about is the stagnation piece of it. That’s where a lot of boards and Executive Directors start to see a dip and it go down in morale and funding because they’ve done it for so long. It’s almost like they’re checking in and strategic planning becomes a compliance issue and not so much a living document in how we run our organization in the vision and the dreams that we have for what we’re doing. 

I think you have to make opportunities for your staff to grow and really, I believe – I believe in shared leadership. I really believe in creating. That’s part of that growing phase of creating teams of leaders, team leaders, to – 

My job isn’t to know how to do everybody’s job. That’s what we hire people to do. My job is to keep the organization moving, so it’s very important to have these leaders and begin raising up leaders. The ED has a multifaceted job of creating leaders and teaching leadership skills. If they don’t know them, then learning them along the way, but it’s very important to empower your staff to grow with you. Giving them those roles and responsibilities and empowerment and autonomy. 

I believe in autonomy of giving your staff autonomy to do what they know how to do and do it right. It’s not my job to micromanage them. It’s my job to grow them. I believe in growth. I believe in teaching leadership skills. I believe everyone in my organization is a leader in our community and a leader in our organization, so they have teams and they have little teams. Those little teams have little teams. It’s finding those strengths and what people do. 

We’ve all heard putting the right people in the right seats in the right bus. There’s a lot of truth to that of working with your staff to find out and watch their growth and where they really grow in places and it may not be where we thought it would be. Being able to ask them what do you love doing and what is it that you hate doing in your job? Because we all have some things that we hate that we have to do no matter what, but if somebody loves those things, man, how nice is it to be able to ship those around when our staff is growing with us, and they’re growing in their leadership, and they’re growing in their knowledge, and their expertise to be able to find those places for them to be happy. Because I believe that you grow in your strengths and your weaknesses are just your weaknesses that you’ve just always kind of got a work on. 

But when you really put them in a strength area and give them that autonomy to do things, you will see growth. Then you’ll see people staying, and you’ll see more retention. Retention is good for the budget and retention is good for morale. When you have staff members that don’t want to grow, that’s a whole other issue of how we can handle that. 

A lot of times, the staff that is growing and the staff that does feel empowered, and the staff people that want to move the organization forward will make it difficult for that person that does not and they end up sticking out like a sore thumb because when there’s movement, and rapid movement, and consensus of a group, and I believe in consensus of a group, the people that don’t want to be there shouldn’t be there. 

Sometimes they stay and that’s the job of the ED to make sure they don’t. That’s hard. That is so hard especially for nonprofit. 

Nonprofit people just have such big hearts. They don’t want anybody to hurt. “This is a single mom and she’s doing this.” That’s why I believe ED’s have to have a backbone. You got to be able – ED’s have to be able to know people aren’t going to like you. It’s not your job to make friends with everybody. It’s your job to take care of them. And it’s your job to get rid of the people that don’t belong in your organization. I can lay my head down at night and say that I did what’s best for the organization. 

When we look at it from a very one-sided point of view that this person is toxic and they don’t need to be, but I don’t want to fire them because they’re a single mom and they’ve got this, then you give that person every opportunity to succeed. Every single opportunity to succeed. When they don’t, you cannot feel bad, you need to cut it because that will seep into your nonprofit or your organization so quickly, you’ll lose respect from your staff members if you don’t nip it in the bud. If your staff members know that this person can do this, then what’s stopping them from saying, “Well, then, I can do that if nothing’s going to happen to this person.” 

There’s a very strategic way to do that. There’s a documentation process and a growth process for that person. If they’re not willing to get onboard, it is your responsibility to let them go and be happy somewhere else. It’s not with your organization. That is a very difficult thing for people to do, but there’s a strategic way of doing it that you can develop in yourself. 

Don’t make a quick fire. Don’t fire somebody because you think you can. Give them every opportunity to succeed first and have those crucial conversation, those honest conversations about what you’re seeing. Not from an emotional point of view, but from behaviors that you witnessed that are not in compliance with what your expectations and your policies and procedures in your employee handbook says. 

If you don’t have an employee handbook and policies and procedures and expectations and norms, you don’t do anything. Get those in place first because you are not protected. You just can’t do that to a person. 

That may be why they’re not acting that way, it’s because they don’t have clear expectations. They can’t read your mind and they don’t have the handbook. But it is the job the ED wants all that’s in place to do what’s right for the staff. If that person needs to go, that’s what’s right for the staff and the organization. 

No. We could go on for days. I think that we covered a lot. I hope that people in nonprofits will utilize your resources and really realize what you guys offer because nonprofit work is hard. We have the heart, but we have to have the business for sustainability. 

You guys offer a lot of resources for people in nonprofits and different organizations and I think it’s smart to surround yourself, educate yourself on what other people are doing, and what they’re doing better than you because you’d be surprised how many people are willing to share their resources with you, especially in the nonprofit world. Thanks for having me on. 

My husband is a therapist and he is a very beta male which is just a – He’s just a nice guy. He’s the nice guy. I’m more of the alpha female. I’m more of the assertive, outgoing, move forward kind of person and he’s more not. 

We kind of talk about what that looks like in the modern world and what that looks like in marriage and relationships, partnerships, and parenting in the workplace. We call it The Beta Male Revolution because what kind of beta male is ever going to start a revolution? It’s kind of ironic. 

We talk about how to navigate these issues, and the softer side of masculinity, and the upside of strong females and how to support each other and how to navigate it together with your partners. It doesn’t have to be an alpha female, male. It’s just really about ego and breaking down those traditional roles that we’ve known so long.

Apple, Spotify. There’s a couple other ones that we’re on, but it’s The Beta Male Revolution. The symbol is a betta fish. That’s it. We’ve had a really good time doing it. We’ve met some amazing people. New York bestseller people. Just people that are putting good things out in the world and it’s like free therapy for us. We enjoy doing that. We enjoy listening to the experts in the area and getting advice from them. Thank you for that shameless plug. 

You can go to any child advocacy center. The National Child Advocacy Center, NCA, and find out more. Or at CASA which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate. You can look there all over the world, all over the United States. I haven’t checked if they’re in Canada, but they’re usually in every big city. It’s just advocating for kids and foster care kids that have been abused or neglected and how you guys can help. You can look at us. We’re CASA Texarkana, and CAC Texarkana. 

If you guys can get out there, the biggest thing to do is report child abuse if you see it. 

Thank you.

About Tom (TJ) Abbott

Tom (TJ) Abbott, CSP is the Managing Director of AMC NPO Solutions and an authority on Governance. He has over 25 years experience as CEO, President and board director of several not-for-profit organizations. Tom has also spoken in over 20 countries.