I did good work for a nonprofit -- but it trashed me in its minutes!

As a consultant, I brought unwelcome news.

By Cary Tennis
Published January 10, 2007 11:51AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm hoping you can help me solve a little conundrum that could have profound professional consequences for me.

A couple of years back, I was hired as a consultant for a nonprofit organization. I was hired by a larger organization that provided a substantial portion of the nonprofit's funding, and was asked to advise the nonprofit organization on ways it could increase its revenue from other sources. The nonprofit was, initially, quite uncomfortable with changing its way of operating, and this manifested itself in occasional veiled hostility to me as the representative (the messenger who must be killed) of the larger organization.

Then about six months ago, the person who hired me to work with the nonprofit organization told me that members of the smaller group had visited her and told her that while they had not been open to my advice at the time it was given, they decided to implement at least some elements of the plan that I had delivered, and met with great success. This success encouraged them and they are now happily pursuing other aspects of the plan and even developing new ideas that go beyond my initial suggestions. All is going swimmingly. They thanked her for hiring me.

The smaller organization has not passed on any of this positive feedback to me directly, which is disappointing but not damaging. However, I recently did a quick Google search on myself and found that the meeting minutes of the nonprofit are accessible to anyone who knows how to search for them. And the references to me in their formal meeting minutes are quite negative and damaging.

My concern is that if prospective clients or employers were to do a similar search on my name, they would easily find this information and, without knowing the whole situation, might decide to eliminate me from consideration based on the negative information in these minutes. Further, I think it could be problematic for the organization itself to have its confidential meeting minutes so accessible to anyone who knows how to search for them. Perhaps they contain similar frank and unflattering commentary on the larger organization that is still funding it.

What can I do to both protect my reputation and continue to help the smaller organization, which in spite of everything I still support and wish well? I don't have any good contacts there anymore, but I do have a couple of contacts at the larger organization that could probably put me in touch with the current board.

Hoping you have some good ideas, as I am not sure what to do and definitely don't want to make things any worse.

Thanks, and sign me

Overexposed

Dear Overexposed,

I suggest you talk to your contacts at the larger organization. See if they can raise the issue with someone at the nonprofit. It may well be that this material's availability to the public is a mistake. But before you talk to anyone, bone up on the law, so if the question of your legal position should arise, you can address it. If you should be asked, "Are you claiming that you have been defamed?" for instance, you should have an answer. Don't bring it up. You don't want to sound like you're thinking of suing. Just know your legal position in case you're asked.

As I say, it may be a mistake that can be resolved amicably. On the other hand, the organization may believe that putting meeting minutes on the Web is good-faith public disclosure.

I found this very common-sense statement on the Donors Forum of Chicago:

Preamble
Nonprofit organizations -- including foundations -- must strive for excellence in realizing their missions, managing resources effectively and governing well ... All nonprofits must:

  • Operate for the public good;
  • Comply with the law, especially in executing fiduciary responsibilities;
  • Uphold fundamental values including honesty, integrity, fairness, and trust;
  • Observe articulated and rigorous ethical boundaries, including respect for all people's race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and ability;
  • Maintain complete and transparent financial accountability; and
  • Make appropriate information available to the public.

    That last item -- making appropriate information available to the public -- seems key. I would think the argument you would make is that this particular information is not appropriate.

    If the nonprofit insists that the public needs to know what goes on in its meetings, suggest that it summarize the meetings rather than publish verbatim transcriptions.

    But if the nonprofit really thinks trashing consultants in public is a good idea, well, maybe then it's time to declare war. After all, you have to protect yourself. And it hasn't exactly been sweet to you.

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