our museum volunteer is out of control

A reader writes:

I am the executive director of a small museum and manage five part-time staff members. During my time here we have added several staff positions and worked to become more professional, creating employee policies and working to follow industry standards and museum best practices in all aspects of work – including collections care. We have a large archive and artifact collection and continue to take more donations in daily.

One staff position that was added in the last year was a collections manager, whose job it is to work with existing and incoming collections. The person hired for the position, Jean, has the type of education and experience needed for the job and a strict view of museum best practices. However, there is a huge personality conflict between her and the previous collections manager, Steve, who has been with the organization for 13 years and has a strong background in archives management. He served as a part-time staff member for 11 years and then gave up his pay two years ago to help with the organization’s budget, becoming technically a volunteer but keeping the same hours. During his time with the organization, he basically started the collections from scratch, developing his own paperwork and numbering system. Jean is my direct report, but Steve has no manager – I have been instructed by the board to not manage him, and he doesn’t report to them either.

Steve keeps expressing his intent to retire, and has “officially retired” several times in the past few years. Since he loves the work and cares about the organization so much, this is difficult for Steve and he always returns within the month, picking up as though he had never retired. My intent with hiring the new collections manager was that they would split the load, with Steve focusing more on archives and Jean focusing more on artifacts, thus allowing Steve to work less hours and semi-retire. However, this is complicated by several factors and didn’t really work out. Steve has some of our collections at his home, and continues to solicit artifact donations and officially accept them without first consulting Jean. He tends to stop in at the museum and work when Jean isn’t here, and lack of communication is a big problem between them. But the main problem boils down to the fact that Jean is frustrated at Steve’s lack of adherence to museum best practices, and Steve is frustrated at Jean’s strict manner, and doesn’t always agree with what Jean accepts or doesn’t accept for the collections.

The problems seem to be escalating quickly over the last few weeks, as Steve becomes more and more frustrated with Jean and oversteps boundaries (dictating the work of staff he doesn’t manage, rearranging others’ furniture and office supplies non-stop, and continuing to accept objects without letting anyone else know). It’s a difficult situation because he has been such an integral part of the organization for so long. Also, we cannot afford to lose the rapport he has built with our donors or his knowledge of our community’s history and our existing collections. But I do want us to continue moving towards best practices, and I am happy with the professional way Jean handles the collections.

At this point, I have discussed the issues with the board co-presidents, along with the committee in charge of collections. The best option we’ve come up with is to bring in a mediator to sit down with Steve and Jean and open up communication between them about these issues. Do you have any other insights or ideas? If we bring in a mediator, we are looking at one of the board members with a background in mediation. Would it be better to bring in an outside party? Should it just be the three of them meeting, or should I or one of the co-presidents also attend?

No, no, please don’t do this!

If I were Jean, I’d be pissed as hell that you were handling it this way — as opposed to deciding how you wanted things to work and then conveying that to Steve and Jean. Certainly pissed enough to be majorly demoralized, and possibly pissed enough to consider leaving. You’d essentially be saying, “We’re not willing to make the decisions or have the tough conversations that are part of our job, and so rather than figuring out the right thing to do here, instead we’re going to let you and Steve duke it out. Good luck!” That’s the opposite of how you retain good employees, and it’s the opposite of how you should be making decisions.

I understand that don’t want to lose the rapport that Steve has with your donors or his institutional knowledge … but you are going to lose those things at some point, either when Steve retires or passes away or decides to take on some other interest. You’re far better off having a carefully managed transition now, while you can do it deliberately, than scrambling to figure it out when the timing is outside of your control.

Right now, you’re being held hostage to fear of upsetting Steve. And while it’s very nice that Steve has worked without pay for two years, as well as given the organization 13 years in total, that does not buy him the right to control what happens there. You still need to do what’s in the best interests of the museum, and if Steve doesn’t want to play along with that, then Steve is no longer acting in the best interests of the museum, and that makes it all the more imperative that the situation change ASAP.

Someone — probably you, but maybe you with a board member, depending on the dynamics, since Steve is manager-less and unpaid — needs to sit down with Steve and talk to him about how things need to change. This isn’t a conversation to scold him; it’s simply bringing him up-to-date on how things are changing now that Jean is on board. I get that you’re concerned about alienating him, but if he’s as committed to the organization as it sounds like he is, you can appeal to his sense of what’s best for the museum and explain why it’s necessary to change the processes that used to work but no longer are optimal for the situation. Be explicit that you’re grateful for everything he’s given the organization, but the museum has a different set of needs now, and you need his help in meeting those needs.

Things that should come out of the conversation:

* Steve needs to return the collections he has at home to the museum. Ask him to work with you to get everything returned within the next, say, 30 days. Offer help to make this easy on him, like hiring movers if needed. Explain why this is necessary (for instance, that if something were to happen to Steve, the museum’s property would be in limbo … or perhaps that insurers or auditors — who are a convenient bad guy in lots of situations — have told you that you need to do it).

* Steve needs to respect the boundaries of his role in respect to the museum’s staff. He can’t rearrange other people’s space, give direction to other staff members, or accept new objects for your collection without going through whatever process you have set up for that.

* You need to begin transitioning donor relationships to current museum staff. (Again, you will need to do this at some point in the future anyway, and you are better off doing it in an organized way, rather than in chaos when you eventually have no choice.)

* Steve needs to coordinate with Jean (or you) about his intended schedule going forward, so that people know what work and hours they can and can’t expect of him.

* Explain to Steve that he’s a hugely valued contributor to the museum’s work, and you hope he can work with you happily within these guidelines. (The subtext, which you might end up needing to say explicitly is: If he’s not willing to work within these guidelines, then you will have to handle this just like you would with any other employee, meaning that you’ll need to part ways.)

Before you have this conversation, you need to get aligned with your board about it, especially since they’ve directed you not to manage Steve (!!). You might also point out to them that having a rogue volunteer who isn’t accountable to anyone is what’s caused this, and that you need to avoid setting up something similar in the future. You also need to make sure that they’re going to have a backbone on this, so that they’re not undermining you if Steve takes this to them.

And if your board refuses to back this approach, at least don’t let the mediator idea move forward. That will reinforce to Steve that he has virtually unlimited power to do what he wants (since no one will directly tell him to stop, to the point that you’re using a mediator instead of making decisions and holding him to those), and it will send a horrible signal to poor Jean.

Read multiple updates to this letter here.

{ 308 comments… read them below }

  1. CTO*

    I’ve worked and managed volunteers in nonprofits where certain volunteers or donors are tiptoed around because they’re “so valuable” to the organization (or have been valuable in the past). Even in situations far less dysfunctional than this one, it never, ever works out well to give these big personalities carte blanche just because they’ve been generous with their time or resources. It’s always a recipe for disaster. You’re putting so much at risk by letting important assets, donors, and programs be in the hands of a rogue person who has no accountability.

    Someone needs to be given the authority to manage Steve, and then they need to actually have the backbone to provide a lot of oversight and enforcement. I’d also start succession planning, like Alison suggested, so that your museum is reasonably protected if Steve rebels against your new expectations. You need to consider not just your collections and your donors, but also your public reputation. Be prepared for Steve to badmouth you and to win some of your supporters over to “his” side. If your donor base isn’t diverse enough to withstand this, then you might have a bigger challenge than just Steve.

    You really seem serious about improving standards and running a quality museum. I hope the board gives you the support you need to handle this situation well. If not, you’ll be beholden to Steve’s control for as long as you continue to work there.

    1. Vera*

      This! Of course, this does not just happen with volunteers, but with long-time employees at companies too. These employees are “so valuable” that they are left unaccountable for projects they are supposed to be completing, and wasting resources for their own personal pet projects that have no place in the company’s strategic plan. It is definitely demoralizing for the real high performers in the company seeing these people constantly be praised for this behavior, or at least not penalized, and certainly new employees who would act like this would be let go. As a result, employees have less faith in their leadership.

      OP- please handle this yourself, if for nothing else to show Jean that you have everything under YOUR control.

  2. EmmBee*

    Poor Jean! She probably goes home every night wondering why on earth she was even hired if Steve still runs things. Her authority is being negated left and right.

    Steve’s having trouble transitioning into this new phase of his life where he’s not the go-to person anymore. I sympathize, but y’all are doing no one — least of all the museum — any favors. And you’re going to lose Jean in the process if this keeps up.

    Keep in mind: Steve holds all the cards right now (or at least thinks he does) and that is a disaster waiting to happen.

    1. AMT*

      He does hold all the cards, but only because the museum’s management is too timid to grab them back!

      1. AMT*

        I should say the board, not the management, since it’s not clear that the OP or other museum staff have much control over Steve.

  3. Kay*

    As big of a concern as Steve is, I think the main problem here may be the board. If the board is not allowing you to manage, they are creating really unnecessary risks. As CTO said, there are definite concerns with this transition and Steve needs to be managed.

    I agree with Alison that you really need to make sure the board is on your side about this before you have these conversations with him. Everyone should be aligned so there’s not a way for him to overturn the decision.

    1. Darth Admin*

      Agreed re: the Board being the bigger problem. I can’t imagine why they apparently want no one to have any authority over Steve, but that’s really what’s come out of their decision/directive not to manage him.

      As the Executive Director, you really need to find out where the Board is coming from on this and explain the ramifications to not managing Steve.

      1. Apostrophina*

        I can kind of see why, given that he seems well positioned to hold some of their collections hostage, but it still shouldn’t be happening at all.

      2. Chinook*

        If the Board really is the issue, I recommend you do something I would never eslewise recommend (and only because I have seen it work) – create a well-meaning revolt. The museum back home had a female Steve who used her power and influence to demaen and control others. She even retired a few times but always came back because the museum needed her. She even was a board member because nobody ever ran against her. Well, the ED was tired of all the undermining of her authority as she brought the museum in a new direction (including an expansion and grants to fund it all), so she encouraged every local she could think of to get museum society membership so that they could vote for and even run for a board position. She brought in 50 new members (ironically of a younger generation from female Steve but those her age were already on the board and couldn’t figure out how to get rid of her without her causing major damage in the community) and had a few people run who never did before. As a result, female Steve was not voted back to her position and then a small celebration was given her honour for all her decades of services but where it was also clear that they didn’t expect her back because it is time for the next generation to help.

        It was win-win – no more female Steve and the Society membership role grew by leaps and bounds. There was pity, though, for the remaining societies and boards she was a part of because she suddenly ahd more time for them.

        1. Mallory*

          Wow, that sounds like one of those “cozy fiction” novels on small town life. I can see the climactic scene wherein all the younger women in the town come pouring into the town hall meeting to overtake the museum’s board. For some reason, in my mind’s eye, they’re all wearing flowered dresses and straw hats.

      3. MaggieMae*

        The board is probably trying to incur the least risk possible. And they probably don’t have a lot of experience having their own difficult conversations with rogue staff (it was probably always ‘someone elses’ job). There might even be an attorney on the board screaming the virtues of mediation; there is clearly not a soul with personnel management experience on the board. Dear lawd, what a mess.

        And YES: why is there no volunteer coordinator/manager??

        Poor Jean!

    2. rr*

      I agree. If the board is saying NO! to managing to someone, that’s a really big red flag about everything. What other kinds of Normal Business Practices are they resistant to?

    3. Anon 1*

      Agreed. The BOD is the OP’s biggest challenge. It doesn’t really matter what solution the OP comes up with, if the BOD isn’t on the same page the OP is just plain stuck. The ED reports to the BOD and if the BOD disagrees the ED is SOL. Sorry for all the abbreviations, I couldn’t resist!

  4. AMD*

    Gosh, I am trying to imagine Steve’s basement now, arrayed with priceless artifacts and works of art…

    I really feel for Jean – it’s terribly hard to move into a new situation trying to lead everyone into following rules more strictly even with full support of the higher-ups, and not being able to rely on their support might just totally undermine any authority he has and momentum towards good change he could get started.

    1. Ann Furthermore*

      I know — the idea of someone’s random house filled with extremely valuable artifacts is pretty appalling. Good God. At my company someone in the AP group wanted to start working remotely, and we couldn’t accommodate her, because we didn’t want her taking original invoices out of the building, as they were official business documents, and if something happened to them, we’d be up a creek. Her house could burn down, she could have a car accident with them in the car with her, she could get sick and be unable to get to work, etc. There is no electronic imaging system (one of my big frustrations) so there was no way for her to scan the documents into any kind of online repository to access them that way. And we were just thinking about paper invoices, not works of art or historical artifacts. Gah!!

    2. hayling*

      I agree! I’m also worried what will happen if this conversation with Steve doesn’t go well – is he going to fight bringing the items back to the museum?

      1. MaggieMae*

        I wonder if there is a way to execute a covert operation in which there is a grand auction/fundraiser/clean up, ANYTHING, in which the goal is to bring all of the pieces to the museum BEFORE the conversation happens. That way there is no risk outside of shaming the museum’s reputation should the talk go sour. But what kind of event is engaging enough to entice him to get on board for that? I mean, he should be down for a fundraiser, right?

        And why didn’t Jean build a volunteer coordinator into her infrastruture plans? Was it a board decision? (wow, they are really blowing it left and right, if so.)

    3. Sunflower*

      Honestly, I’d check in pretty quick with Jean because I wouldn’t be surprised if she was already thinking of leaving.

      1. Ruffingit*

        THIS! I’m betting Jean is already on the hunt for a new position and I can’t blame her. You are going to lose her if this situation isn’t dealt with promptly and fairly TO HER.

    4. Anonsie*

      “arrayed with priceless artifacts and works of art…”

      Most of a museum’s collections are neither valuable nor particularly impressive. And the things that are would not be the things that would make it home with the collections staff, for sure.

      1. Meredith*

        It really doesn’t matter what the value of the items might be. The items belong to the museum, and are in the private home of this guy. They need to be remanded to the custody of the museum immediately. The fact that he’s storing the museum’s property in his home is Not Okay on the very highest level, and the fact that he’s been allowed to do this is a sign of great dysfunction.

        1. Anonsie*

          Woah woah, I didn’t say it was ok. Just noting a misconception about what’s in your average collection.

          1. Meredith*

            I know you didn’t say it was okay, and I’m sorry if my tone implied otherwise. In my profession (archivist), “value” is not generally viewed in a monetary way. An object’s value does not necessarily have anything to do with its worth.

        2. T*

          Small museums and historical societies housing collections in peoples homes isn’t unheard of. When they’ve been doing something a certain way for so long, it’s a huge task to establish and follow procedures more in line with best practices. I have a hunch that the board in this case thinks that any improvement is a step in the right direction, so why get worked up about the things they can’t fix now. I also wonder if they are ensuring the longevity of the museum and its collections through development, etc. It sounds like they think of Steve as some sort of cash cow, but what if they court him and he lives another twenty years and loses or mishandles objects at his home and doesn’t leave them all sorts of money when he passes?

          1. Rae*

            Onsite storage might also be an issue, depending on how much is actually at Steve’s.

    5. JEC*

      Priceless artifacts and works of art is probably unlikely. Most museums aren’t the Louvre, and the relative value of their collections tends to be limited to the geographic area. Small museums usually are more of a repository of local history, such as artifacts from the original founders or settlers, documents relating to the county industrial growth, letters, dioramas, etc. They tend not to have anything on display that you think of from Indiana Jones movies.

      That’s certainly not to say that it wouldn’t be a tremendous loss for the community if items were damaged or stolen, only that monetarily it’s not the same as Steve having original Monets or Michelangelos in his basement.

    6. Lora*

      I was actually picturing one of those hoarder-type houses, with dead cats behind the bookcases and 3-year-old pizza stuffed between the cushions of a Gustav Stickley couch.

      1. OriginalEmma*

        I’m thinking of the flamboyant episode of the fellow with all those supposedly priceless dolls! Or the other fellow who collected arcade machines.

    7. Chinook*

      Having worked in small town museums that were started with no long term plans and limited resources, I can see how Steve started holding on to artifcats merely because there was no where suitable to store them at the museum and still have a decent display. Most people don’t realize how much space museum storage can take, even if they aren’t up to modern standards. As for current archival standards, I still cring at the one museum I was the archivist at one summer where bright light shone directly into the storage rooms, the glass plate negatives were still stored in the shoe box they were donated in with nothing between them and, when I asked for new white gloves because ours were black with dirt, had holes and woudl disintegrate when washed by hand, I was told they weren’t in the budget because they weren’t that important. I was 19 and even I knew that this was all wrong.

      *hands paper bag for all the other museum people out there* your panic attack from the mere mention of this should calm down in a minute or two.

      1. Chinook*

        Now that I think of it – the museum with the nightmare issue also had my female Steve as the Executive Director.

      2. Jessa*

        Thank you for the paper bag. I keep seeing insurance nightmares if something is damaged/stolen from Steve. Or gods forbid he dies and someone questions ownership of stuff in his house. Other issues aside, if it belongs to the museum it needs to BE in the museum. If there’s no space for it, it needs to either be stored offsite in museum controlled space or traded to another museum/historical society. And if he’s taking donations, how is he documenting this stuff? There are tax implications around donations.

        Truthfully the BIG issue started when someone tried to divide the work between him and Jean. Maybe pushing him toward donor relations and having Jean take over 100% of the actual management of the collection?

      3. Rae*

        This. I actually was imagining the stacks and stacks of incoming cardboard boxes of unsorted “archives”, and if the only other place to store them would be the museum’s wet basement (as at least a few local museums I know of are actually older homes), I can see how Steve at least, if not others, thought his house was a safer place.

  5. the_scientist*

    This is an excellent illustration of why no one should be allowed to be indispensable. The museum has allowed Steve, who clearly has a deeply personal, vested interest in the work, to become indispensable and is now paying the price for that in the form of a person hording knowledge and holding the museum and its employees hostage.

    I wonder if a good way to frame the changes to Steve is simply by saying “we need knowledge to be spread between staff for when you do retire, or in case something happens- that means that collections must be stored AT the museum, that a set of standard operating procedures must be put in place and then followed, and that we’ll be introducing other staff members to x, y and z donors”.

  6. Katie the Fed*

    “but Steve has no manager – I have been instructed by the board to not manage him, and he doesn’t report to them either.”

    My head ‘asploded.

    These are the worst situations to be in – when you have someone running amok but others above you who basically tell you not to deal with it. Way to completely undermine the management.

    Unfortunately this is the heart of the problem, and it doesn’t sound like you’re going to get anything done unless the board is on board (heh) with getting Steve in line. Otherwise he’s going to go running to them and they’ll undercut whatever you do.

    This guy basically has carte blanche to do whatever he wants right now because the board is allowing it. If the board won’t go along with laying out the roles clearly, I’d look for a job elsewhere. Responsibility with no authority is the worst.

    1. A Non*

      Given a choice between this situation and yesterday’s employee-biting dog, I’d actually take the dog.

    2. Artemesia*

      absolutely. this is a ginormous Board problem and can’t be solved without the board agreeing. I wouldn’t doubt that Steve has his little team on the Board lined up.

      I would approach them very bluntly on this — that this is a disaster for the museum waiting to happen. Recount the specifics of his rogue behavior and private reception and storing of museum property and insist that this is potentially disastrous for the future of the museum. It is hideously bad management to have a faux employee who ‘can’t’ be managed but who can hold everyone else hostage. And yeah if I were Jean my resumes would be out.

  7. MR*

    Steve has to go.

    This is one of those situations where one person ‘has too much control’ over a situation where they really don’t. It’s possible that Steve has created this aura where he is so important, that he absolutely must remain doing what he is doing or the whole organization will collapse.

    Also, the OP is not helped by a board that is out of touch with what is really going on within the organization, and as a result, kowtows to whatever information Steve is able to provide to them about his knowledge/service.

    Follow Alison’s advice. Work with the board to edge Steve out of the picture over the next month or so to restore sanity to your organization. I promise that things will work so much better going forward. Good luck!

  8. Lucky*

    “He served as a part-time staff member for 11 years and then gave up his pay two years ago to help with the organization’s budget, becoming technically a volunteer but keeping the same hours.” This is illegal. Museums, even non-profits, have to toe the line re: wage-and-hour practices, and a museum employee can’t quit and then “volunteer” in the same position without being paid. Steve could certainly volunteer in a structured volunteer capacity, like a docent program. But this museum is risking more than losing Steve’s goodwill – if the LW and museum board don’t handle this correctly, they risk a pretty pricey lawsuit (e.g., in my state, Steve’s wages for the last three years x 3, plus attorney’s fees and lawsuit costs.).

    1. Annie O*

      Yep, I was thinking the same thing. It sounds like Steve may be entitled to back pay for the unpaid work he’s been doing the last two years, plus some hefty fines.

    2. Jennifer*

      This was the first thing I thought of, too. And while the tendency might be to think “of course Steve won’t sue, look at everything he’s already done for the museum, why, he gave up his salary” this certainly seems like a situation that could easily sour. (Not to mention all the other reasons one would want to comply with wage-and-hour laws in the first place.)

      1. Jennifer*

        There are rules that accommodate having volunteers, but there are criteria for what can be considered ordinary volunteerism, and it would be hard to make the case for that on an employee who gave up his paycheck but otherwise continued doing the same amount and type of work as if he were still an employee. Granted, the situations I’ve dealt with were a little more clear-cut, having to explain that a manager could not encourage his employees to work volunteer overtime on their normal paid job duties, rather than someone electing to not be an employee at all, but this still seems like dangerous ground.

        1. Annie O*

          Yep. Steve clearly does not meet the criteria for being a “volunteer.” Specifically, the services need to be the kind typically associated with volunteer positions. Further, no employees should be displaced to accommodate the volunteer.

          Well, Steve continued his duties that are not typically volunteer work by any stretch. And he displaced himself when he stopped receiving pay for doing the same work.

        2. wanderlust*

          Not that I have any background in this at all, but if the museum has something in writing from Steve stating his intention to voluntarily give up his pay, he might not be able to successfully sue for the last three years of his paychecks. But I could definitely be wrong, and either way I agree that it’s probably better to never have that as a question at all.

          1. Saturn9*

            No. Certain rights, like labor laws, can’t be signed away by employees (no matter how willing they are to do so) because having that option would be completely undermine, if not nullify, those laws.

            For example, if signing a contract was enough to get around labor laws, there would be no such thing as overtime pay because employers would just make everyone sign a waiver for that as a condition of employment.

        3. Kimberlee, Esq.*

          Can you provide a citation for these “criteria?” I can’t find any federal requirements or definitions on what can and cannot be a volunteer position.

      2. Elysian*

        It’s also possible that its a government affiliated museum, and there would be different volunteer rules for that, too.

        1. Elysian*

          Actually that might not make sense since the OP talked about the Board. I don’t know anything about museums or how they’re run, honestly.

          1. Brett*

            Public museums have boards too (at least in the US). All of our museums here are tax supported public agencies, and they have governing boards just like private non-profit museums.

    3. Kimberlee, Esq.*

      My understanding is that this would be a problem if Steve were being paid for some work but not all of it, but as far as I know there are no laws saying you can’t have any given position in any given capacity be volunteer with non-profits. Heck, some non-profits are run entirely by volunteers. There’s no requirement to have a structured program.

      As long as they have it in writing that his employment was terminated, that he knew it was terminated, and that he was paid all wages due from when he was employed, there should be no problem.

      1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

        I found this on the Department of Labor website:

        “When Congress amended the FLSA in 1985, it made clear that people are allowed to volunteer their services to public agencies and their community with but one exception – public sector employers may not allow their employees to volunteer, without compensation, additional time to do the same work for which they are employed. There is no prohibition on anyone employed in the private sector from volunteering in any capacity or line of work in the public sector.”

        1. Zillah*

          When I looked it up, I found that, too, so my impression is the same as yours. I’d love clarification if someone has more information, though!

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            While this is generally true, there’s an exception in some cases where someone is volunteering in a part of a nonprofit that’s commercial and serves the public, like a retail shop or restaurant. In that case, the law gets trickier. But in general, what Kimberlee wrote above is correct.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                This is actually a fairly tricky area of law, because the definition of “displace” is not clear or straightforward. I wouldn’t assume he’d have an FLSA claim without knowing a lot more (and the fact that he’s functioning with no supervision or accountability and just doing what he wants, when he wants is a point in favor of this not applying).

                1. Jessa*

                  And that very issue may be why the board does NOT want him managed or placed under the supervision of Jean.

  9. GigglyPuff*

    Something I would suggest going forward, if you don’t already (not sure since it wasn’t mentioned), since you are a small museum, I’m sure volunteers might become a regular part of the museum, and there should be a clear volunteer coordinator with policies set in place just for them. And if Steve wants to remain on as a volunteer, he needs to follow those policies, like following a set schedule, who he reports to, what his duties are, etc.

    1. GigglyPuff*

      Also the entire having artifacts at his home seems really off, especially for someone who has a background in “archives management”. Even a small museum, it seems like there would be set policies in place before now about donations, because those require paperwork, inventorying, copyright/access restriction rules, etc. That seriously needs to be a first priority because if I had donated something and found out it was just sitting at someone’s house, I’d be angry enough to request it back and give it somewhere else.

      And I would seriously double check all the paperwork and donation agreements for everything at his residence.

      1. some1*

        This is what I wondered — with Steve doing so much of the collection and storing stuff at his house, how does the museum know he’s allowed to have all of it? Say, someone passed away and the widow gave an artifact to Steve but it was actually willed to someone else.

    2. Ethyl*

      Also — clear job descriptions and a finite time period after which you re-evaluate to make sure it’s still working.

  10. Adam*

    Steve keeps museum items at his house? Why? I know nothing about the field of museum/archeology but unless his real name is Indiana Jones I have no idea how this would have been allowed in the first place.

    1. GigglyPuff*

      It sounds like, he is soliciting donations from donors, and he is picking them up and then just storing them at his house instead of bringing them to the museum, and/or the donors drop them off at his place whenever it is convenient for them and he just doesn’t bring them in.

    2. Contessa*

      This made me twitch. What if his house floods? Or burns down? Whose insurance covers the items? What if no one’s insurance does? What if Steve declares bankruptcy, or he co-signed his kids’ loans and they defaulted, and his assets get sold–are the artifacts his or the museum’s? What if they’re stolen? Or damaged because the house doesn’t have the right moisture control? Is he liable? GAH.

      OP, at the very least, try to get these artifacts into secure storage at the museum.

    3. OP*

      The museum is very small and doesn’t have anywhere near enough storage space for all of our collections. We have about 12 offsite storage locations right now – another whole issue! One of those storage locations is Steve’s basement.

      This was allowed (from what I can tell, from the beginning of his time with the organization) because he offered the space for free, and we don’t have the money to rent a consolidated storage location. It is also our best storage location, kept at proper temperature and humidity levels for the artifacts.

      Also, Steve doesn’t have any family, and supposedly his will leaves everything to the organization. So I imagine the board has thought all these years that keeping the items there won’t matter, as someday it will become another museum-owned storage location.

        1. Saturn9*

          The OP is not assuming. The OP says “supposedly.” “Supposedly” implies distrust, which is the opposite of a blind assumption. The board, however…

      1. GigglyPuff*

        I understand about controlled space for artifacts, but seriously this sounds a little insane. Couldn’t Steve make the reasonable argument they were is, if there isn’t a clear rental contract in place? I would seriously move these items before making him angry.

      2. Ethyl*

        I mean, it seems clear that there’s a serious conflict here between “small, friendly, relaxed museum-ish kind of place” and “would like to be bigger, more official, actual museum.” Nobody seems like they’re on the same page, and that should be addressed. Steve’s will notwithstanding, what does happen if his house catches fire, or floods? Whose insurance pays for that? What if Steve gets hurt while moving around the museum’s stuff in his basement?


      3. Adam*

        Wow, I’m starting to see why people tend to tip toe around this person. He really is invested in this institution.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          There’s some expression about academia that goes like “the drama is the most vicious and bitter because the stakes are so low” that makes me think of this guy.

          1. Adam*

            Professional Academia is a whole other world and culture I’ve discovered after being in college. I’m quite confident I would never survive it.

          2. Kelly L.*

            That’s how I felt in food service! There was serious Machiavellian plotting over who was going to be the next assistant manager at a sandwich shop. Game of Baguettes!

      4. B*

        Ahhh be cautious of that will. Sure he supposedly is leaving everything to you but could change it at any time. He could be in a whole heap load of debt and end up having nothing to leave to you. While a nice gesture, the board et al do not really know this person and what one day is in the will could one day be out. I have seen it done before…

      5. LQ*

        Honestly? Knowing this I’d suggest walking away. I know that wasn’t something you even asked about but this is a bigger problem than I think can reasonably be fixed. Your board refuses to manage and likely won’t change their approach to Steve based on hoping for his donation, you’re going to be eternally undermined by someone who has made himself indispensable (someone above had a great point about this).

        I wish you, and Jean! the best of luck.

        1. Artemesia*

          THIS. I doubt this is a situation that can be rescued. But absolutely don’t allow mediation which hands the power to Steve. Rock along while you and Jean plot your escape.

      6. alma*

        I know it may not entirely (or at all) be in your control, but I personally think getting the items out of Steve’s house should be a priority before you start lowering the boom. Do not underestimate how vindictive people can be.

        A friend of mine had a story about a client with a similar sounding “Steve” figure — a guy who had worked there forever, was totally invested, and kept key things at his house. In the client’s case, one of the key things their “Steve” had possession of were the organization’s computer servers. The client did not get them out of his house before informing “Steve” he was being transitioned out of his job. No points for guessing what happened next.

      7. Meg Murry*

        At a minimum, the museum should have a storage contract with Steve, and “rent” the space from him for $1 per year, or something similar. Make it 100% clear that the artifacts are the museum’s, not his personal collection.

        But when I heard “the board doesn’t want anyone managing Steve” I suspected the issue is that he’s promised a big donation of his estate, provided he stays on the museum’s good side. Can you talk to the board about helping Steve setup a trust now, rather than just willing everything to the museum? Then there will be less “we must tiptoe around our biggest donor so he doesn’t change his mind” if the trusts are already in place. Universities have done a lot of work on this type of giving recently – possibly there is a local one you could suggest someone at the board talk to about setting up a living trust/donation?

        1. Mitchell*

          Steve could rent the storage space to the museum and then donate whatever the cost of the storage space would be so the museum effectively pays no rent and Steve could probably get a tax write off too. Also, the rental contract could include terms specifically giving museum employees access to the space. (Keys to the basement or specific hours that they can enter.) I would want to be sure that the items in the basement belong to the museum, not to Steve.

          1. Jessa*

            Also an inventory clearly showing what is the property of the museum, so that in NO way it could be sheriffed to pay a debt, or a bankruptcy, or separated from the museum if he dies. The agreement should also have in it who is responsible for the insurance and what type, and what proof they need to show to prove it’s in effect.

      8. Brianne*

        If he’s already “retired” several times, how are there still items at his house? If the assumption is that he is leaving everything in his will to the museum, then that should have been codified prior to his “retirement” to protect the interests of the museum.

        1. Jessa*

          He can’t “leave” the museum it’s own property. They really need to get all that settled in writing whether or not they chose to push Steve out.

      9. Lora*

        Oh, my. Your board sounds dumb as a bag of hammers. Sorry, but they are. They are relying on a document they have never seen, which may be easily over-ruled by the courts if it wasn’t filed properly with the state or correct signatures or if Steve perishes with debt to be reconciled or if a long-lost fourth cousin twice removed pops up claiming next of kin…? Have any Board members ever BEEN through probate court with a half-baked DIY non-notarized internet form “will”? It’s not any fun at all, I can assure you.

        If there is so little space for collections that they have to be stored at Some Dude’s House, then it is time to start prioritizing what stays in the collection and what goes to a new home. Keep the most valuable things, or the most complete sets of things, or the things that tell a comprehensive story about what the museum is trying to convey, but figure out what to keep and re-home the rest. Send a nice thank-you note to all donors saying that we thank Steve for his contributions and wish him well in his retirement and Jean is the new contact person. Hold a dinner party fundraiser for donors and sponsors and whatnot to introduce Jean to key non-Steve contributors and explain that the fundraiser is needed to BUY MORE SPACE to house collections so that people are aware space is a priority and you’re not being mean to say, “I’m terribly sorry but we just can’t keep this anymore due to space constraints”. If artifacts can’t be re-homed to other museums, galleries or universities, return to original owners with a sincere “thanks for loaning us your wonderful object, we regret that we are unable to store it any longer. “

        1. the_scientist*

          SERIOUSLY. My grandpa passed away about 8 months ago, and his will (a proper, legal one done in a lawyer’s office) took 7 months to go through probate. SEVEN MONTHS, for a more or less ideal situation- my grandmother predeceased him, and he hadn’t updated his will after her passing which caused minor problems, but he had no living spouse and his three adult children (my mom and her siblings) all get along extremely well, were completely on the same page with the division of his assets and didn’t contest anything or argue, at all, amongst themselves.

          Furthermore, he’d already sold his house when his declining health meant that he couldn’t live on his own, meaning that the proceeds from the sale didn’t go through probate.

          After witnessing this, my eyes were opened to the difficulty of inheritences-via-wills and I 100% agree that the board has basically shot themselves in the foot on this. I’m also in agreement that the OP needs to bail, and should probably advise poor Jean of why she’s leaving!

          1. Paige Turner*

            Seconding your SERIOUSLY. This story is giving me hives. Maybe I’ve been watching too many Poirot episodes (just kidding that’s not possible) but this sounds like the beginning of The Case of the Volunteer’s Will or something. Bananas.

          2. Evan (in the USA)*

            Seven months???

            I’m probably coming at this from a totally naïve viewpoint, but why in the world would it take so long?

            1. Lora*

              Depends on the state and what their requirements are for what constitutes a “real will”. Some states want it notarized, others want witnesses, others need witnesses AND a notary AND designate a trustee AND file the thing with probate court before you die (PA). Usually you have to post some kind of public notice that the person has died, will anyone with a debt to settle with the estate please come forward–typically a classified ad in the local paper is sufficient, but the state decides how long it has to run. Then you have to take the certified will to the person’s bank (do you know about all their bank accounts?) and get access to their accounts. Then you get the outstanding debts to come forward. You might think people would be anxious to get their money, but hospitals and nursing homes will take their sweet time, not sending bills until over a year after the death. And you have to work your way through the bureaucracy of insurance companies and credit card companies and so forth. Then, and only then, if there is anything left (hint, there won’t be), the surviving family can divide up what’s left as Great-uncle Steve wanted it, amongst Stephen and Stefan and Stephanie. Or they can fight over it in court. Or maybe Stephen died and Steve never changed his will and now Stefan and Stephanie hate each others’ guts and have to divide up Stephen’s share…

              That, and it’s not even the fact of what the collection items are actually worth–a lot of it is based on what people THINK it’s worth. For example, let’s say Steve has an antique lamp. Some people will instantly think, “Tiffany! I WANT IT!” when in fact it’s a hideous dusty thing made in Grandpa’s 8th grade shop class. But they’re going to take it to court anyways, because no matter how frequently Antiques Roadshow tells Stephanie that the lamp is worth exactly nothing, she believes that Antique = valuable and will start a legal fight over it–without even seeing the lamp.

              It really brings out the worst in people.

              1. Editor*

                Pennsylvania probate is slow. The state requests things like information about accounts that don’t go through probate (retirement accounts) and wanted figures the investment manager in NY had never had to provide before. PA doesn’t tax that stuff, but they want every financial detail they can wring out of the estate. Then they review everything, and that takes even longer because they cut the number of staff members in that department (or had at the time, which was several years ago). The only things PA didn’t know about were the life insurance policies because the beneficiaries were properly written and the funds didn’t get routed through the estate. Settling the estate cost a pretty penny, too, due to all the hours the lawyer spent.

          3. the gold digger*

            My husband’s ex died a few months ago after years with terminal cancer. She did not leave a will. After the divorce was final, she did not change the ownership of property that was now completely hers. So now my husband is the – on paper – owner of a bunch of stuff that he has to deal with to get to his stepdaughters. The stepdaughters have to deal with an estate with no will.

            Death is a pain in the neck even if your relative has done all the proper things.

            PS Related note – a few years ago, my husband’s father said he wanted to set aside a certain amount of money for my husband to divide between his two brothers and himself as he saw fit. I told my husband that was a formula to make his brothers hate him forever. Why would anyone ever suggest that?

            1. Elizabeth West*

              My mom and I like to play a game called When You Die Can I Have That. If she gets something cool, I say it to her and if she visits and sees something she likes at my house, she says it to me.

              She said once she was going to put stickers on everything so there was no doubt as to who got what. My family isn’t the type to fight over stuff, but you never can tell. There’s only one thing I want (a piece of furniture) and I will fight for it if I have to, because it means a lot to me.

              1. SB*

                +1 for stickers or other physical tags. Lessens any rancor in larger families; it’s there in b&w, in the original owner’s handwriting. My dad started a list for my siblings and I, but I’ll probably start stickers at some point, in part to make sure I’m not overdoing it!

          4. Liane*

            Thirding, I think, this one.
            Trusts also do not mean things go smoothy or fast. Almost 4 years ago, my father-in-law passed away, followed 13 months later by my mother-in-law. Everything was in well set-up trusts and their wills were up to date.
            It wasn’t until last March or April of last year that the trustee got everything settled–nearly 3 and 2 years after their respective deaths.

            1. Artemesia*

              Several million dollars were squandered in my FILs last incompetent years and then further squandered through mismanagement by my MIL. By the time the estate passed to the children, what a few years earlier would easily have meant a million apiece (7 siblings) was down to about 300K each much of which got further squandered by FU behavior by the trustee who managed to sell at the trough weeks after being asked to sell. Before that an incompetent advisor had my MIL sell a bunch of stock which meant huge capital gains taxes — totally unnecessary. If it had passed in the will there would have been no taxes. MY FIL was so obsessed with the government not getting anything that a lifetime fortune was thrown away in a few year to mismanagement.

              The sad thing is that they never spent money on themselves nor educated their grandchildren or did any of the other things you would hope someone with money like this would do. We would not have been sad if he had donated it to charity or have been happy if they had enjoyed it a bit — but to see it pissed away through declining age related incompetence was really awful.

              Badly drawn wills or trusts can be worse than nothing. And Steve can change his will at any time.

      10. Meredith*

        I’m an archivist, and this is making me extremely nervous. Your organization is putting a lot of trust in Steve. There are way too many incidents out there of long-time, trusted archives and museum employees fencing off their institution’s property for cash. What if he’s selling your museum’s stuff on eBay and maintaining his “volunteer” position with your institution to maintain a steady line of supply? Is he doing formal donor agreements? Where are the records of those agreements? Is he providing documentation of what he is storing? Who is providing oversight of that? How are your items in his custody insured? Are they being stored and cared for properly?

        1. Jessa*

          This. How do you even know all the items that are supposed to be there are? If he’s taking donations you don’t know about? Is there an inventory? Does the museum know exactly WHAT he took with him when?

      11. Michael*

        It’s a free solution now, but it will actually end up costing you more than proper storage would cost if something were to happen. If any of the situations mentioned here were to happen, you have just negated the cost of the “free” storage.

        Also, if Steve’s house is damaged or destroyed, not only do you lose the artifacts, but Steve could attempt to demand that the museum pay for the house damages. (Rightfully or not, he could put up a fight and demand it.) Is Steve’s home covered in your museum’s insurance policy?

        1. Jessa*

          Particularly if the damage is “caused” by the items. Are they paper ephemera? Diaries? Things that are flammable? If they catch and the house goes up, that really does potentially leave the museum on the hook.

  11. EM*

    This situation reminds me of volunteering at a local animal shelter.

    There are elderly volunteers there that have been with the org from the very beginning — when it was run out of a tiny building that only could take in cats — to its current standing as a valuable community resource with a bright new building and lots of adoptions.

    These volunteers routinely do not listen to the (now paid staff) positions of the main animal caretaker and the shelter lead. They have been instructed to stop feeding dogs certain treats and to not place towels/blankets/etc in certain dog’s cages.

    Well, they feel like these rules are “cruel” and the dogs needs a blanket or would really like some treats.

    The rules are in place for a reason. The dogs get massive upset stomachs and diarrhea if given too many crappy treats and the dogs marked “no blankets” are ones that will rip up & eat blankets/towels possibly causing life-threatening obstructions.

    They just don’t get it. It came to a head when finally, one of the dogs had to have an emergency surgery for a blockage that was caused by one of these volunteers putting a towel in with a dog that was not supposed to have one for the above mentioned reason.

    The Board finally realized that though it was an emotional situation, they HAD to come down hard on these volunteers because they were literally putting the animals’ lives at risk.

    While a museum is a different situation, perhaps you could frame it in this type of way — that Steve is causing harm to the organization as a whole by being allowed to act without penalty or structure.

    1. Paige Turner*

      You’re so right, and hopefully if readers recognize similarities between this case and something in their own life, it will be a wake up call to put a stop to things before they get as crazy as this.

    2. Jennifer L*

      So what did your board do? Please tell me those volunteers are no longer allowed to work for the shelter any more.

  12. Clever Name*

    Please, please don’t hire a mediator to settle the “dispute” between Steve and Jean! It’s not a personality clash or a dispute. It’s a willful lack of management. Period. You’re in this mess because the board refuses to allow you to do your job. If Jean doesn’t quit on the spot when you spring on her that you’ll be hiring a mediator, she will no doubt leave for another job sooner than later.

    1. Anonathon*

      Just chiming in to agree! Mediation implies a conflict that is equal on both sides, and that’s not the case here — Jean is doing her job properly and Steve isn’t. That is his and management’s problem, not hers. And you could very well lose her if you go this route.

  13. Celeste*

    Agree completely with AAM. It’s time to decide who’s in charge here. You need the board on your side. I think you really need to push the insurance liability here, where the goods in Steve’s home are concerned. That is untenable.

    I don’t see mediation as necessary if you can have the authority to manage as you need to. Steve should not have the choice to continue his uncooperative behavior at your museum. Honestly, the part about him re-arranging the office furniture and supplies makes him sound unhinged. It’s too bad that things were allowed to go on this long, but it’s not too late to chart a new course.

  14. Malissa*

    I feel for Steve. The guy obviously has a great passion for the museum. He’s not making the transition to retirement well. Steve is the problem at the moment. He needs to be part of the solution. Any chance you could transition Steve to a seat on the board? His skills with the donors and his expertise would make him an ideal candidate. This might also make Steve feel like he is still valuable to the organization and he may let go of some of the other duties to which he’s desperately clinging.
    The problem, as I see it, is that Steve needs to feel valuable to the organization. Bringing in Jean with no alternative role for Steve has made Steve feel threatened. A board seat just may be the solution.

    1. MR*

      Excellent point about moving Steve to the board. This would be a great spot for him, instead of the day-to-day operations. His experience and insight would be highly valued, and he would be able to make contributions on a regular basis.

      OP, please try to consider him for this. This may make the transition much easier not only for you, but also Steve and everyone else involved. Good luck!

    2. CTO*

      A man who doesn’t respect authority should not be given more authority. I’ve seen plenty of board members overstep their roles, and it sounds like this place has a very active, involved board where involvement in daily activities is an expectation. It would be too easy for Steve to continue in his ways, but with more official stature to do so.

      Whether or not Steve intends to cause this trouble is irrelevant. I am sensitive towards Steve’s feelings, but the OP’s job is to manage the museum, not Steve’s feelings. He just doesn’t seem like a guy who will leave quietly, and he’s putting the entire museum program at risk in several ways.

      1. AMG*

        This was my first thought. Get Steve in check–if not out the door entirely–and then see what else he can do. Maybe let him pick up trash in the parking lot or something. But don’t let someone with such boundary issues have more power and control. He won’t stop coming in and messing with things.

        1. CTO*

          Exactly. “Promoting” Steve to be a board member does nothing to make it clear to him that his current actions are inappropriate. Steve will see it as a reward for what he does, which will only encourage more of the same.

          If the board actually gives OP authority to manage Steve, and Steve responds well to that and begins behaving within the current policies and procedures, and seems to understand why things must be different now than they were 13 years ago…. then–maybe–he could be considered for the board.

          1. Chinook*

            NO – NO – NO- NO – DO NOT LET/ENCOURAGE STEVE TO BECOME A BOARD MEMBER!!!!!!!!!!! I have seen the damage a Steve can cause at that level and it woudl literally take a coup to dislodge him. He needs to be asked to leave with the firm belief that it is time for the next generation to help out.

        2. AndersonDarling*

          Could he be a docent? (I hope I spelled that right) If he could be giving tours or giving talks, he would still be involved in the mission of the museum.

          1. CTO*

            If Steve becomes a docent, OP should require him to abide by very clear hours and duties–write a job description for him and enforce it. For instance, no hanging around the museum before or after his scheduled tour hours, no entering areas not open to the public, no publicly representing/speaking for the museum beyond official scheduled tours, etc. I have a feeling Steve would struggle to adhere to these expectations.

              1. some1*

                Yeah, you can’t tell him he can’t hang out in a public place, but certainly working and re-arranging stuff should be addressed.

      2. Callie*

        OMG no, don’t put him on the board! He’ll just do more of the same and have more authority!

      3. Elizabeth West*

        I had the same thought. If the board doesn’t manage him now, they certainly won’t if he’s on it. They’ll just sit back and let him do everything and the situation could get even worse.

      4. Anon Accountant*

        100% agree with this. “A man who doesn’t respect authority should not be given more authority”. If Steve is like this as an ex-employee and now a volunteer I shudder to think what would happen if he were on the board.

        In my experience, it’d be a recipe for a bad situation to get worse.

    3. Hattie*

      As long as he doesn’t impose his version of “collections management” on the staff as a board member, I think this sounds like a good solution. A role that lets him continue to be involved and advocate for the museum, but not involved in the day-to-day aspects.

    4. Ann Furthermore*

      I think Steve’s underlying motives need to be examined. At first I thought this sounded like a good solution, but then CTO’s comment about someone who doesn’t respect authority being given more power makes sense too.

      If he really just wants to be involved in some way, this might work. But if he is on a quest for power, or feels that he should be running the whole show, then this could end badly.

      1. Malissa*

        But if nobody has actual authority over Steve, how do we know he won’t respect authority? The OP isn’t supposed to manage him, the Board doesn’t over see his work. He’s kinda been left out there to self manage, for a very long time.

        1. Ann Furthermore*

          Yeah, but in his position, I wouldn’t deliberately try to undermine Jean, the OP, or anyone else. That seems to be what he’s doing here. I mean, he’s even rearranging people’s workspaces and office supplies. How does he justify that as part of his volunteer duties?

          1. Malissa*

            I think that’s a symptom of Steve not being able to let go. If nothing changes, even where the paperclips are located, then he still has a place. Is Steve a rational adult? No. But can he be managed and worked with? Probably.
            The objective here is to find a way to do that.

    5. lonepear*

      Eeeek. As a nonprofit board member… no Steves, please! this is clearly not an effective board already and adding a Steve to it is not going to help anything.

      It would be better if the board would help him transition out: but recognizing him in some other fashion, maybe making him an Institutional Fellow, publicly thanking him for his good work and announcing that he is transitioning away from the day-to-day work to impart his wisdom in an advisory role.

    6. majigail*

      Unfortunately putting an over invested volunteer on the board is a recipe for a disaster. Your board needs to be a group of people who can manage your organization and get resources to take it to the next level. While Steve is getting stuff, has left the organization in his will, and is clearly invested, he would be too much on the board. It’s a recipe for micromanagement of the staff. Also, my rule in life is that former staff should never be board members. That’s a terrible situation for your staff.

    7. T*

      If I were in OP’s shoes, the last place I would want Steve is on the board. It’s like rewarding him for insubordination.

  15. H*

    I work in libraries, which often have similar management structures. Reporting to a volunteer Board can be extremely challenging! It’s not just Jean who’s being undercut here, but you. You, also, probably feel at risk because this Board has chosen Steve over you. He’s so important for some reason that they’re risking the reputation of the museum — and by extension, your own professional reputation — to keep him happy in his hobby. That can’t feel good.

    In your job description or contract, does it say that you’re responsible for hiring/training staff? In my experience it’s most definitely NOT the province of the Board to hire/manage anyone but the Director. All other staff work for you, not for the Board, and there are many excellent reasons to set things up that way (this situation being example A). If you’re in charge of everyone else but Steve, it’s not going to fly, and you need to have a frank conversation with at least one or two sympathetic people on the Board to start getting that point across. It sounds to me like the Board needs to get their head straight before you’re going to get anywhere with Steve. Refuse the mediation, keep backing up Jean, and start working on your Board. Managers in your shoes have to manage up as well as down.

  16. Ann Furthermore*

    Here’s what occurred to me while reading the post, and the comments so far: is Steve really the selfless volunteer that he appears to be, or is he being a total control freak because there’s something else going on? Who knows if he’s really accepting donations at his home and then cataloging that stuff for the museum? He could be picking out the most valuable stuff for himself and selling it on the side.

    Many times when someone refuses to relinquish what they’re doing, it’s because they don’t want anyone else to figure out what they’re up to. Years ago a friend of mine worked for a credit card company in the call center, and one of her co-workers was someone who was highly respected and could do no wrong. Then she went on vacation and someone had to get into her desk to look for something. They found evidence that she’d been generating phony refund checks, and sending them to her boyfriend in another city who would then cash them. Or something like that….but she had embezzled upwards of $1 million from the company before she got caught.

    One IT guy at a company where I used to work was stealing computer equipment, stashing it in a storage unit, and then selling it. It went on for a long time, because the company was a dot-com start-up and there weren’t many policies and procedures in place, so it was easy for him to order stuff on the company’s dime and then snag it for himself. It was common to see him coming out of the building carrying equipment and putting it into his car, but no one thought anything of it because we all assumed he was taking it to one of the other buildings. He was taking it to another building — just not one of the company’s! I think he ended up getting prosecuted by the federal government because he sold something to someone in another state, so the crime crossed state lines.

    You need to figure out what Steve is really up to. Maybe use the auditors (again) as the bad guys and have them show up at Steve’s house to do an inventory of everything he has there, and a review of his records or something like that.

    1. MR*

      This thought also crossed my mind, and it must be examined. But it’s possible he also might be so dedicated to the museum that there are no shenanigans involved in what he does.

      It could easily go either way, but please check this out!

      1. Ann Furthermore*

        You’re right, of course, but I’m just suspicious by nature. Almost always, when someone is a control freak like that, there’s another underlying reason.

        The only time I felt sympathy was for an older woman I worked with years ago. She refused to cross-train anyone, and they had to force her to take vacation. She even had her desk set up so you couldn’t see her computer screen if you happened to stop by her cube. I found out later that she was paranoid about losing her job because her husband had a congenital heart defect and was on a transplant list. He didn’t work, so she had him on her plan. She worried constantly about losing her job, and insurance, and then being unable to pay for his transplant surgery. She was pretty nutty, but when I found that out I did feel sorry for her.

      2. AMG*

        We have someone like this, and it’s because she refuses to change her processes. She’s very inefficient and doesn’t want anyone to know how she and her team do things, so she operates her department like a fortress. Nobody can make suggestions on how things can be done more easily if they don’t really know the true details of the daily operations.

        1. Ann Furthermore*

          Ugh, I’ve worked with people like that too. What baffles me is how they’re allowed to get away with that. Usually they’ve convinced a few key people that they are vital, indispensable employees and business would grind to a screeching halt if they even thought of leaving.

          This is a great trick — I’d like to learn how to do that!

      3. meetoo*

        Agree with MR. It could be just that his identity is tied to the museum and his hobby of collecting. Still worth checking on.

        I have worked for many small dysfunctional non-profits. Having things at a trusted employee / volunteers house is something that happens. It should now be moved to the museum for all the reasons above. However, these thing do happen when resources are slim and don’t raise red flags.

      4. Chinook*

        I agree – just because someone is controlling doesn’t mean they don’t have the best interests of the organization at heart. The one great thing I can say about my female Steve is that, without her, the historical society would never have gotten to where it was and she would never have taken anything from it (unless she originally donated the item because then she could have called it a loan).

    2. KitKat*

      That was one of my thoughts. I read it, then read it again, all the while thinking “They let him keep artifacts at his house? With no paper trail?? Ack!” How does anyone have any idea what belongs to who from where and why? It makes my inner-curator seize up and twitch.

    3. Malissa*

      Very good point! An audit and an inventory would be perfectly normal for insurance purposes.

    4. Artemesia*

      I was a member of a professional organization which discovered that its much valued long time secretary/accountant person had been bilking the organization for years. A good friend had a friend of her who worked in her small business do this. This is very common when there are not good controls in place so it is certainly a possibility.

      I sense he is a control freak bully and this is his domaine and that he will win if it comes to a head, so the choices are to bluntly confront it with the board or leave or rock along while Jean leaves.

      1. Koko*

        Yes, I read that employee theft is most common at mom-and-pop shops and thrift stores and the like because they don’t have policies in place to ensure it’s not happening and catch it. They don’t balance the drawers’ closing balances against their start balances and transactions. They don’t balance deposits against transactions. They don’t require more than one person to be present for the count. Etc. They just trust that they won’t make a bad hiring choice and end up with someone duplicitous.

        1. Koko*

          I actually worked years ago for a very small shop nonprofit that I could have easily embezzled from because they never reconciled the donation database with the bank deposits. I could have easily been recording donations in the database and keeping them instead of depositing them, and nobody would have ever noticed that our database showed more donations coming in than we had money in our bank account. I was still young and inexperienced, and I never figured out a way to point this out to the ED, because I was so afraid I’d cast suspicion on myself for having even thought of the possibility when it hadn’t occurred to her.

  17. Mediation Professional*

    Agree with Allison on this one. This is a management issue – not a conflict between Steve and Jean. By asking them to work this out, you’d basically be saying that the organization won’t manage their employees and volunteers, so those employees and volunteers must instead come to an agreement among themselves about how the agency is run.
    The thing with mediation is that you have to be sure that the people at the table are the people who actually have the power to resolve the conflict – and this conflict, at it’s root, isn’t between Steve and Jean – it’s between you and your board about the limits of your power to manage the people who are doing the work of the organization. If you can’t work that out with your board, then, perhaps, you might need outside help resolving your conflict with them. However, it doesn’t sound like things are at the point of being heated or really hard to resolve – this sound more like a planning/capacity/succession issue that the board and staff leaders need to get clear on.

    If outside help is needed, I’d be more inclined to start with a consultant who can help you achieve the steps Allison is talking about – figuring out how to move donor relationship back to the agency itself, setting out clear guidelines for volunteer management, etc.

    It may feel like dismissing Steve, however respectfully, would cause a disaster, but I would predict that it would eventually lead you to having an organization with stronger management and a clearer vision. For every donor who might walk out the door with Steve, there’s someone else who’s not donating because they see evidence that stronger management is needed. You will inspire more confidence over time by strengthening the organization’s capacity to manage their collections and their staff.

    Good for you for seeing that this is a tough spot and not letting things continue as they are.

    1. CTO*

      Excellent advice. I wholly agree that the organization will be better off once Steve leaves, even if the transition is hard.

    2. MJH*

      The thing is, Steve and Jean probably DON’T get along. Jean sounds like a bit of a control freak in her own way, which is probably what the museum needs, but she’s not going to be very indulgent or willing to work with Steve if that is the case. They probably dislike each other a lot, and that’s not entirely his fault.

      However, the personality conflict is masking the underlying issue, and having a mediator address personality conflict isn’t going to solve the main problem, which is that Steve needs to be phased out.

      1. Del*

        Yeah, I think the personality conflict is really the smallest part of this entire issue. Not to mention that a lot of the personality conflict would probably be resolved if Steve were brought to heel and no longer allowed to run wild.

        1. Mediation Professional*

          Agreed. Jean might not seem so controlling if she had some reasonable degree of autonomy in her job. As is, it sounds like she has very little power over her own work and accomplishments.

      2. CC*

        I didn’t read Jean as a control freak at all, based on the letter. What I read was that she was specifically hired to implement “best practices” procedures, and that Steve is calling her strict when “best practices” are different from what he’s used to.

        1. Jessa*

          This. People don’t want to change, and Jean was hired to make things better. In fact she’s probably itching to get an inventory team into Steve’s house, if she’s doing her job and is aware he has things there.

  18. TaterB*

    I’m having flashbacks of dealing with a few rogue volunteers myself. It is EXTREMELY frustrating when a volunteer basically runs the place and everyone–the board, the ED, other volunteers–is afraid to say something to them. This is one of the reasons I lefta job with a very popular nonprofit….if we did anything that was not approved by the “volunteers in charge,” we received emails, phone calls and even office visits to be chewed out for not doing things the “proper” way.

    I can’t offer much advice–I left that compaby with a quickness because I refused to handle the dysfunction. But I made up my mind that if I ever run a nonprofit, no volunteer will have that much authority, period. And if they think they do, I have no problem promoting them back to the community…

    Because despite what people think, you CAN fire a volunteer.

    1. CTO*

      Volunteer Match has offered a free webinar in the past on “difficult volunteer transitions” that address situations exactly like this. Anyone in this boat might want to check it out.

  19. Nodumbunny*

    Okay, I see that Steve is out of control, but does anyone else think Jean is being a *bit* of a harda$$? I mean, museum best practices – is she asking him to adhere to elaborate practices and procedures that aren’t really necessary for what I picture as a small local/regional museum of local history? I’m picturing the museum on Madeline Island in Lake Superior – neat little museum with lots of artifacts of early life on the island, including when the island belonged to the Chippewa. Interesting, but not necessarily priceless collections.

    1. MJH*

      Yes! I think a different personality would be better at handling Steve and more flexible. But the OP does say she’s happy with Jean’s work, and it’s good to adhere to Best Practices, so yeah.

      But still, there needs to be a little bit of give. It’s not the Smithsonian or the National Archives.

      1. lh*

        Thing is, I got the feeling that that was why Jean was hired – to make the museum more professional. And so, essentially she is being told to do something, and presumably judged on it, yet cannot do so because of someone who is totally unaccountable.

        1. Marian the Librarian*

          Exactly. The OP specified that the museum wanted to move in the direction of becoming more professional, and following best practices is a good place to start. It doesn’t matter if you’re collecting Monet or garbage, you still need to have standards and procedures for developing your collection, and everyone needs to follow them uniformly. Because Jean was hired to implement new practices and take the museum in a new direction, Jean should be the one to draw up the policies and procedures, and she’s not unreasonable for expecting people to follow them.

          On that note, I can’t imagine how frustrated Jean probably is right now. I bet the job description and interviews led her to believe that this would be an exciting opportunity to transform this museum from a local curiosity to a professional institution by taking charge of these policies and procedures for collection development. What a nightmare to learn that a volunteer would subvert all your efforts to do so and that you couldn’t make any real changes because your board was afraid of reprimanding him. Yikes!

    2. AMG*

      Here’s the difference: it’s her job. It’s not Steve’s job and he is out of line. The best practice examples listed by the OP seem to be reasonable. Even if they weren’t, it still isn’t Steve’s place to decide that.

    3. AndersonDarling*

      I was envisioning a House Museum of some kind. I know those can run without ANY procedures for a long, long time. But it sounds like this museum is growing and gaining credibility, so I can see the push to formalize procedures.

    4. Hous*

      OP specifically says she’s trying to get the museum to follow best practices in all aspects of the work, so coming down on Jean for doing something she was hired to do seems pretty harsh.

    5. Anonsie*

      I’m going to have to disagree here. It doesn’t sound like Jean is going way over the top in her requests here– it’s far from control-freak level to not want a volunteer to elicit donations, do no paperwork, and hide the objects in his house or suddenly move them into the museum without telling anyone. That is an awful practice for a number of different reasons, and I’m going to presume those are the types of things that Steve is unwilling to let Jean shape up.

      Fact is that a lot of small museums have collections run by the same person for a long time and their systems are not always very high quality. It doesn’t matter the size or level of the museum, though, you need good storage and good record keeping and proper handling, and it’s not unusual for new staff to need to be brought in to re-do the work of a previous long tenured collections manager.

      I once spent months at such a museum unpacking, repacking, and cataloging ceramics and glass that had been stored in an “ok” way, ok meaning that there were more than a few broken pieces but most things were safe. We also had to revamp the catalog entirely, and we discovered a lot of things were missing that should not have been. To actually get our collections in order so we even knew what we had, we had to essentially look at every single item one at a time and compare to the previous inventories. This whole process took years. That’s the level of work that goes into fixing a slightly lax system, and that’s what they brought Jean in to do.

      1. Bwmn*

        A variation of this issue seems to be so common in smaller/younger nonprofits once they hit “adolescence”. I worked for a legal nonprofit, and all of their ‘best practice’ was in regards to making sure that legal documents were being documented/housed properly. However, other documents related to the organization (media coverage, reports, old donor documents) were all dealt with based on the whims of prior staff. Not only was it a mess, but it created a number of positions where only that employee new anything about a department and their leaving did represent a huge institutional knowledge loss.

        Taking any sized nonprofit past the point of being run entirely by the founders into a professionalized entity that can survive for decades greatly relies on putting comprehensive systems in place to make sure critical data like that isn’t lost.

    6. plynn*

      Best practices for a museum do not need to particularly onerous or elaborate. Basically, anything donated needs to have a record of some sort and a number to help keep track of it (especially important since the OP says they have *12* offsite storage facilities). Objects that are officially part of the collection should have a more detailed record and be kept in the best conditions that the museum can afford – off the floor, low humidity, away from direct sunlight.

      One issue that small museums often face is people donating random objects that are not valuable or pertinent to the collection – and then they get upset when they are not immediately accepted and put on display. Having an acceptance policy is probably one of the practices that Jean is trying to implement – you just can’t take every donation because it costs the museum time and money to deal with them and care for them.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Good catch. They’re acceptance policy so far is “We’ll take it.”
        Getting a handle on that is a good idea. Their income cannot support the collection they have now. Why on earth would they gather more?

        I think Jean sees this and is trying to put the brakes on.

        1. Mitchell*

          I am also worried that Steve is representing the museum and making promises on behalf on the museum that he doesn’t have the authority to make. What if Steve excepts a donation from a community member and promises this person that they will display the item along with a plaque thanking them for their generosity, but the museum doesn’t have the space for a new display? Now this person is mad at the museum (and saying bad things about the museum) for something Steve did.

        2. Zillah*

          Exactly. And once you’ve accepted something, you’re often kind of sunk – “returning” an item risks alienating donors and leading to hurt feelings, as does accepting an item but never showing it, which is especially problematic in a small community. It’s much better to say, “This is great, but no thank you” in the first place.

      2. Chinook*

        And detailed records of donated artifacts are a must. They is nothing more frsutrating than, 15 years down the road, going through a dontated photo album and not being able to figure out who are in the picture, what local but now disappeared communioty they are from and why they found it important to record these moments. One album donated without accruate records only had one clue – there were pictures of gravestones written in cyrillic and roman alphabets mixed in with pictures of community places we could recognize. There is a story there that was lost for all time because proper standards were not met and it is heartbreaking.

      3. T*

        I think best practices aren’t onerous once they’re established. But setting them up initially is time consuming, and Jean is a part-time employee. Policies and procedures do need to be detailed.

    7. A Jane*

      Change is hard — some folks are better suited to lead the change, and some folks are better suited to help adopt the transition. Who knows, maybe other folks are on board with the rest of the changes she’s implemented.

    8. Chinook*

      Sorry, but best museum practices can happen even in the smallest museum. My grandfather was a curator at a little one for 10 years (despite having no training, only a grade 9 education and this was pre-internet) that was also a residence. He brought in all the modern standards of his time and improved the quality of the museum with very little money. All it takes is knowing how to handle items, how to catalogue them, how to store them and why.

      As for not being priceless, don’t be so sure. The items in every museum include stuff you may not find elsewhere and may include hidden gems (my hometown museum in western Alberta has a bunch of stuff from a pre WWI Russian prince, my grandather’s museum had native artifacts from around the province that he repatriated back to their home communities when they met his curatorial standards). Textiles are the best example of this – finding older clothing is more and more unusual and they need to be stored in a certain way otherwise they just become holey rags beyond repair.

    9. Meredith*

      The Madeline Island Museum is run by the Wisconsin Historical Society, which is a huge state organization. You bet your boots that they have procedures. :)

      Museum policies don’t have to be elaborate, but you do need a decent collection policy (what do you want, what don’t you want/can’t you take), as well as a clear donor policy and accessioning process. That stuff needs to be adhered to, otherwise you’re just in a huge sloppy disorganized mess. The fact that the museum is taking in more than it can handle is a concern. Perhaps donors should be leveraged for storage money if they want to donate their stuff to the museum. Steve seems to be going rogue and procuring stuff that may not necessarily fall within the collection policy, which is bad practice in general.

  20. Seal*

    So many things wrong with this situation! Having a volunteer with that much authority (assigned or assumed) over any part of the museum, particularly when you have paid professionals on staff to do the work, is a colossally bad idea. No wonder Jean is frustrated – you’re lucky she hasn’t up and quit already.

    I inherited a similar employee at my current job. He’d been here for over 30 years, had his own system of filing and retrieving materials and running our branch library that was very far removed from acceptable practice. He was rude to users and paid too much attention to our female student employees. Even better, he refused to have anything to do with computers, which are essential to our operation. My boss acknowledged he was a dinosaur, but thought very highly of him and wouldn’t back me in trying to get rid of him (she didn’t have to work with him on a daily basis). I had to wait until my boss retired to push this guy out the door. Once he was finally gone, it was like a huge weight had been lifted off the entire place.

    1. some1*

      As frustrating as it was for you, your boss didn’t do that guy any favors, either. How’s he supposed to find a job now if he refuses to learn anything about computers?

      1. Seal*

        She felt his institutional knowledge was invaluable, particularly during what was supposed to be a brief period of transition. Since he was the only one who knew where anything was, she had a bit of a point. Problem was, everyone expected him to retire once I came on board, so my boss “encouraged” me to put up with his nonsense until then. Ultimately, it took a great big nudge to get him to retire at all – it involved mandating that he take and pass basic computer skills classes, which he refused to do.

  21. rr*

    Oh, god, poor Jean. There’s someone who reports to no one who is undermining everything she does. Don’t let this drag on too long, OP; you may wake up in two weeks to discover Jean has given notice.

    You have to support the organization and you have to support your employees. Steve is not the organization and he’s not the employee. He’s not on the board (is he?). He shouldn’t be dictating anything.

    1. Marian the Librarian*

      Agreed–and archival studies is a small and close-knit field so you’d better believe other professionals are going to hear about the circumstances if Jean decides to give her two weeks.

  22. AndersonDarling*

    I’m guessing Steve isn’t as indispensable as the LW feels. If he won the lottery and instantly moved to his new personal tropical island, would the museum close? Would all his lost knowledge cripple the day to day activities?

    It would be messy for a month then everyone would recover. I’m sure it would be nice to have access to his knowledge, but I bet they could move forward without it.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      This. And everyone would quickly figure out that there is actually LESS work with Steve gone. People like this generate a lot of unnecessary work.

  23. Wren*

    Next time he talks about retiring, plan a blowout retirement party. That way, it’ll be weird if he comes back and un-retires again. Unless you’ve tried that already, then I got nothing.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      No, actually you are on to something here.

      I think the fact that Steve has retired several times can be leveraged. It looks something like this:

      “Steve your three retirements this past year have made us more aware that we need to plan for the future. We must make arrangements about X, Y and Z. Additionally, because we will be bringing in other people, we will need to nail down what hours you will be working each week. We must start to delegate your tasks to others so we have decided that A, B, C and D are going to be assigned to Sue, Tom, Bob and April, respectively.
      It is the goal of this museum is to raise up to professional standards. This includes processes such as E, F, and G. Should you wish to continue working here, you will need to follow these standards.”

      My idea is to tap the repeated retirements as the reason for the changes. When he raises objections all you have to do is point back to the fact that he has retired three times in the last year. (Insert correct numbers, of course.) Tell him the museum is concerned about continuity in transitions, consistency in individual’s work and commitment from all its staff. [All things that he does not provide because of his repeat retirements.]

      And if you do throw that party- change the locks on the doors afterward. Seriously.

    2. Brianne*

      This! And part of the agenda at the party should be a formal ceremony involving Steve returning his keys.

      1. Artemesia*

        This is a change the locks moment.

        Although I once changed the locks after we had some departmental theft issues and had VERY clear policies on who could be issued key and old dinosaur secretary decided that a couple of Steves needed keys. I fired old dinosaur secretary — it was a last straw in a string of in subordinations. I agreed to hold off two weeks while she sought an internal transfer although I gave her the letter; she did manage to transfer.

        Asking for keys is confrontational. NOrmal people; no problem. Steve? Change the locks.

  24. Candy Floss*

    This isn’t a Jean and a Steve problem – that it’s deteriorated to this level means there is a leadership problem in the organization. As AAM pointed out, it seems like you are trying to avoid some tough calls re: Steve and I think the having and eating of cake on that point is the root cause of the issue. Jean cannot feel empowered until there is a true transition of this role to her. As you’ve described it, she is now held hostage to the whims of Steve – he retires, then unretires, then retires, then unretires and he undermines her at every turn. If I was in her shoes, they’d be walking right out the door.

    I’ve been a volunteer and I’ve been a board member and I understand the politics and dynamics that can go on and how heated it can get when people are involved in something they are passionate about. Hopefully if you have a respectful but firm come to Jesus meeting with Steve, he will be able to find a way he can acclimate himself to being involved under a new set of guidelines…but it’s up to him whether or not he can adapt to this change.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Right on. Steve would do this to anyone in Jean’s position.
      I think that labeling it as a personality clash is an “easy out”.
      I see nothing in OPs letter that indicated Jean is abrasive, difficult, nasty, etc.
      People who are professional and do things in a correct/orderly manner are very annoying to those who do not.

  25. Annie O*

    I feel sorry for everyone in this situation, except for the board. I even feel bad for Steve. It must royally suck to create something from scratch over 11 years, offer to work without pay for two years, and then stand by as the org re-creates the paid position but hires someone else.

    1. CTO*

      It does sound like Steve is so tremendously invested in this museum that he may not have much else to do with his time and energy when he’s “retired.” He’s clearly very passionate about the museum’s work, his house is devoted to the museum (and he sees that every day when he’s not at work), he doesn’t have a family… this is obviously an incredibly difficult transition for him. He deserves empathy, but definitely not a free pass to keep doing what he’s doing.

    2. CrazyCatLady*

      But he’s been talking about retirement and has left for a month, then come back (and it seems like that’s happened more than once). I think it makes sense that they’d hire someone else for the paid position.

  26. Editor*

    How is Steve getting in places to rearrange things when others are out? It sounds like there isn’t enough internal security or perhaps, even external security. Maybe the first thing that needs to be done, after talking the board around and (if possible without creating even more ill will) replacing any board member who will rat on things to Steve — is to authorize a security audit and change the locks. In addition, it might be necessary to add or alter locks inside the museum, not just outside, and institute strict key/access controls.

    This mess started two years ago when Steve was allowed to stop taking a salary but continue with the same work, because “his sacrifice” created an emotional debt that the board has allowed to become a kind of blackmail. Board members should be appalled that Steve has collection items in his home. He identifies too strongly with the museum and its collections, and board members have catered to his sense of importance. He wants all of the fun — flattering donors and handling their artifacts — without any of the true responsibility for protecting or managing the collection.

    All through whatever process, the board and museum staffers should praise Steve for what he contributed and obtained for the museum while regularizing the rules and regularizing his position to transition to a more professional operation. If donors ask, board members can give credit and hint at problems, “Steve was so essential to the foundation of our museum, and we don’t want to lose his expertise, but we have decided that allowing him to keep collection items at his house for safekeeping is not going to work with current insurance and collection management standards.” Donors and other interested parties in the community need to know that Steve was hoarding stuff, but that new procedures for donations will be followed going forward, but they don’t need to know he’s rearranging the furniture or accepting stuff Jean would reject.

    If the museum has a good website, making a good video about how to offer items to the museum and why the museum makes the decisions it makes might be a good idea. I don’t know if a favorable article in the local paper could help transition to more professional intake, but it might be worth considering. Also, it might be politic to have the board decide to accept the stuff Steve has accepted up to a particular date. A cutoff that coincides with an annual dinner, annual report or some part of the museum’s calendar will make the transition seem more like a piece of routine business. For instance, the museum could announce all acquisitions will require review by a committee after a certain date (the committee could be advisory and the procedure might note Jean will make the final decision) so people would know Steve just couldn’t say an item was now part of the collection.

    Also, don’t donations have to be acknowledged with official letterhead letters that give a value or at least state the item has been accepted? If Steve has items that were donated but never acknowledged, even donors and sympathetic board members should understand that that is both an inventory control and perhaps a tax and insurance issue for donors and for the museum.

    A lot will depend on whether the board members understand the importance of managing Steve and following professional guidelines — but even more important is the necessity of having board members who will be discreet and loyal even if they aren’t entirely happy with the outcome and Steve’s reaction. Because if there’s a board split on this and Steve has a tantrum, the fallout could be nasty and public. I’ve seen it happen, to the point where a rival museum was founded as a result.

    1. OP*

      Yes, donations that Steve accepts DO become acknowledged with proper paperwork. Steve has the paperwork, and the authority (by the board) to accept the items. We don’t have very strong collections management policies, which is yet another issue that we’re working on, but we do fill out the legal paperwork to accept items into our collection, even for the items currently stored at Steve’s house.

      1. Hattie*

        Ugh — he actually send out legal paperwork on behalf of the museum without a title/manager? Is he also allowed to sign contracts or obligate the institution to anything legally?

        Do you think the board would be amenable to learning a little bit more about what museum best practices are and how things like collections should be managed? There are a ton of great books, websites, blogs out there that address these types of issues, could be a good resource for your board and show them that you’re just trying to bring your museum up to date with the field.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        OHH- he has authority from the board for this. Hmm. Then the board can say if he does not follow the rules then they will strip him of that authority.

        Frankly, I am seeing Steve as a hoarder. He compulsively adds everything he sees to the collection. Twelve off site storage places? REALLY? If he is allowed to keep acquiring things he will bankrupt the museum. The board should be aware of that.
        The board could declare a moratorium on acquisitions until the current collection is thoroughly cataloged and individually evaluated for suitability.

        This hoarding thing just jumped into my brain. I don’t know why I did not see it sooner.

  27. squid*

    Okay, I’m on a museum board. Our place has some issues, but nowhere close to this scale.

    Whoever “permitted” Steve to switch from a paid position to an identical unpaid position really screwed this up. I suspect in many environments that would not be legal (famous last words.)

    Taking a voluntary pay cut is one things, but stepping outside of any management control is another. This decision is way more to blame for the situation than any of his personal behaviours. (Often semi-retired museum people are weird, that’s expected, but it’s the job of the Director to appropriately manage that weirdness.)

    And it’s resulted in someone else being hired for what I’m sure he sees as his rightful job, which is probably the root source of the inter-personal friction and weird boundary-overstepping behaviours.

    [Turning professional positions into volunteer or unskilled roles can be really detrimental in the long term, too, since it reduces the museum’s ability to later attract qualified, professional candidates. Many small organizations manage to keep running with kind-hearted volunteers or lower-wage, not professionally trained workers who mean well, but a lot of damage can be done by them as well. (I’ve seen it in terms of severe damage to museum items thanks to bad “conservation” measures, in a previous job.)]

    The Board needs to take final responsibility for all museum staff, INCLUDING volunteers, for liability reasons if nothing else. They also need to delegate much of this responsibility to you as ED. Otherwise, what do they expect you to actually do?

    I totally understand Steve’s value to the organization. Especially in smaller communities, that personal knowledge and rapport are such a big part of things. Turning him against the museum could do some real reputational damage. Glad that you’re not neglecting that risk.

    One short term suggestion is to create a really, really clear division between the archival work and the collections work. You say that was your intent, but is it written into position descriptions? Organizational charts? If not, make that happen, and then stick to it and hold both Steve and Jean to it. Any variations have to be agreed to by both.

    You’re this close to losing either or possibly both, or other staff who are tired of dealing with the drama.

    You may also need to consider moving Steve back to paid-part-time in order to re-establish some management of what he does. Don’t accept a “donation” when that’s what created this situation. If he wants to do professonal-level work, he has to report to someone.

    In the longer term, your Board really screwed this up and they need to take responsibility. Consider the make-up of the Board. Is there anyone sitting as a Board member with legal expertise, with management experience, anything helpful like that? (If so, they really screwed this up badly and should be ashamed of themselves…)

    You can’t take concrete action on Board makeup as an ED but you can make recommendations to the President or whoever’s involved in nominations. You need to look for people who can be part of a diverse Board, representing a variety of professional experiences (not just historical/subject knowledge, but legal, management, fundraising, government, etc) as well as age, gender, race, and other factors reflecting your community. If there hasn’t been any Board turnover in a few years, then … well, I don’t know what to do with that. But it’s not healthy.

    This is pretty much a nightmare scenario the more I think about it.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I sincerely doubt a board can declare someone does not have to answer to them.
      It would take a bit of digging but between tax-exempt status, insurance (items and liability), state/national regs- there has to be some basis for saying that a board cannot create a situation where they render themselves useless. A situation where one individual trumps an entire board basically means there is NO board.
      Whoever agreed to that has no clue what the purpose of the board is.
      OP, is there anything like bylaws for this museum?

      1. majigail*

        The proper structure is Board at the top, managing the ED. The ED is in charge of everyone else. There shouldn’t be Steve floating in space. The board is doing a huge disservice by allowing this, not just to Steve, but to every volunteer and employee that’s currently there and to come because they’ve set up a strange and unwieldy structure that’s causing major problems.

  28. AMT*

    It’s very, very important to resist the impulse to treat this as a situation with equal wrongdoing on both sides–e.g. “Steve behaves inappropriately, but Jean is so strict.” It’s tempting, and you might be one of those people who hates to take sides (I’ve had that problem!), but you need to convey to Jean that she’s absolutely right to want to do her job properly. Then back that up with swift, firm action.

    If you don’t let her know that you’re on her side and agree that Steve is behaving inappropriately, you’ll lose a valuable employee’s respect, and maybe lose her altogether. Often, rather than fixing the problem at its source, organizations with toxic longtime employees/volunteers find it simpler just to hire people who are themselves dysfunctional to endure their jerk coworker’s behavior — which I’m sure you don’t want.

    I would love an update on this one!

  29. AAA*

    I think it is kind of interesting that Steve has maintained his part-time position without pay. As others have mentioned above, this may be illegal–but I want to know how it came about in the first place. It sounds to me like it was possible that the board decided that they didn’t need Steve 2 years ago and cut his position, but allowed him to continue working for free. Steve has also tried unsuccessfully to “retire” multiple times–this guy just can’t seem to leave!

    Also–who was managing him before he became a “volunteer”? Did he never have a manager?

    1. OP*

      Steve never reported to anyone. Three years ago, before I was hired, it was just Steve and another employee, Mike. They were both out of control, until Mike was seriously injured in an accident (un-work related) and left the organization. The board then used that chance to hire me and other staff to help professionalize the organization, implementing policies that Steve and Mike had always been resistant to.

      As for other volunteers, we have a lot of unruly volunteers, actually. Pretty much anyone who was here before, during the time of Steve and Mike, doesn’t really report to anyone, or semi-reports to Steve, in some cases (as in, Steve isn’t disciplining them or anything, but they go to Steve when they have a question or idea). As of about four months ago, we have a volunteer coordinator, who all of the new volunteers report to.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Your board claims they want to professionalize the museum? If that is the case, they are going to need to make massive changes among the way THEY are doing things. Are they open to that? Sure doesn’t sound like it.

      2. rr*

        Wow, sounds like you have a shadow management structure, with Steve as board and director and all of his volunteers as employees, and then you have the real board and real management structure existing simultaneously, and the real one doesn’t *want* to get rid of the shadow one.

          1. Ruffingit*

            Oh and also a question for you Alison. I’ve worked for non-profits, but never on the management level. Might the OP have some liability in any way for what is going on here? Because the situation with Steve working as a volunteer in a job that was once a paid position sounds ripe for legal issues as does the museum’s collections being stored, the hostile work environment Steve is creating and on and on.

            What, if any, liability do executive director’s have?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Assuming the organization is properly incorporated, directors and officers don’t have personal liability (unless they do things like personally injure someone or fail to pay taxes).

              1. Jessa*

                I’d be seriously worried about it being properly incorporated. They seem pretty lax about everything else.

                1. OP*

                  We are a properly incorporated, 501(c)(3) organization, with a mission statement, strategic plan, and bylaws.

        1. OP*

          I do. My ideal job would be to help bring museums up to industry standards, learn how to write grants, put good policies into place, etc. That’s what I get to do at this job, theoretically, at least on issues I’m able to get board backing on.

          I have always known my next step is to get a consultant in to take a good hard look at the board. Thanks to the comments on this post, I now realize that if I don’t succeed in that, it’ll be time to leave.

          1. majigail*

            I often bring in a consultant to tell the board what I’ve been telling them for years. SMH, but it works.

          2. Jessa*

            The minute you said consultant my brain went to OMG hire Alison RIGHT NOW. Immediately if not sooner. Because she has serious non profit chops.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I tried one client like this when I first started consulting. Never again. People have to want to and be capable of cleaning up the mess. (That’s a slam on the board, not the OP!)

              1. Ruffingit*

                I’d love to hear more about the client you tried to work with early on. What was the situation like?

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Crazy, among other problems. And claimed to want to straighten things up, but incapable of actually taking action when obvious steps were laid out to fix things. Now I screen before taking on a new client to make sure that I’ll actually enjoy doing the work.

      3. Em*

        OP do you not have a collections management policy? This would fix the majority of your problems because it could:

        Designate the person that is responsible for all collections decisions (Jean the collections manager with director’s approval)

        Designate where objects are and are not allowed to be (for all that is holy NEVER EVER at someone’s home this is breaking so many museum ethics and best practice standards that I’m having an aneurysm for Jean)

        Designate who has access to collections and when (i.e. only when Jean is around)

        Designate a mission statement and accession policy (thereby eradicating any disagreements between Jean and Steve)

        And you have to empower Jean and give her the tools she needs for authority. This whole Jean and Steve part time stuff is undermining her.

      4. Darth Admin*

        Can you suggest to the board that ALL volunteers report to the recently-hired volunteer coordinator? That would at least get some management in place over Steve (assuming the Board isn’t willing to get rid of him altogether)…

  30. CollegeAdmin*

    Wait a minute. Steve’s previous retirements – did he still have stuff in his basement then, or was it emptied out and then he started re-collecting items each time he “unretired”? Because either way is a big problem.

    If he returned everything when he retired, why was he allowed to add stuff back in when he returned? That was the museum’s chance to break free at least in that regard.

    If he didn’t return everything when he retired, then 1) it’s basically a huge invitation to unretire just sitting in his basement, and 2) the museum has stuff in the basement of someone who is no longer part of the staff. Red flags abound.

  31. annie*

    Your board is a mess. You should find a grant to have them go through a strategic planning process with a consultant so they can figure out what exactly it is they want to do with the organization. I’d also start looking for other jobs.

    1. squid*

      If money isn’t available to hire a professional consultant, you may also be able to find someone through a nonprofit management graduate program who can use you as a case study for a thesis or major paper. We got a SWOT and 3-year plan that way, though the student did had previous involvement with the institution.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        If there is a SCORE near you, maybe they can offer help.
        This is a group of retired business people who are willing to assist others.

  32. OP*

    Thanks to all who have commented – your insights about the dysfunctionality of the board are spot-on. There is barely any turnover (same president for the last 20+ years). The board doesn’t understand typical board/staff duties (as evidenced by this) and gets way too involved in the minutiae of day-to-day rather that working on needed policy creation. And they WILL NOT fundraise, leaving this traditional board activity to the already-overwhelmed staff.

    If anyone has suggestions for how to handle the board’s dysfunctionality, feel free to share. I’d be glad to hear any advice you all have.

    1. CTO*

      Whoa. Unless the board will follow Annie’s advice above and hire a consultant to help them “refresh their structure and practices” (to put it nicely) to conform with a more modern, professional style of museum management, you can’t win here. This place is clearly very run by old-timers who are entrenched, and I can’t imagine that newer folks like you and Jean will win out against them.

    2. Ruffingit*

      You need to leave. Seriously. There are no suggestions anyone can offer you that will help you with an entrenched board that refuses to fund raise, let’s people like Steve run amok, and apparently micromanages. They are not going to do the things they need to do. They haven’t done anything different for 20+ years apparently, they aren’t going to start now. You’re working in the Amityville Horror House and as the house said in the movie – GET OUT!

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yep. Steve will continue to wield a lot of power as long as the board refuses to raise funds.

        Being on a board is a privilege that is earned. Usually people get placed on boards because of specialized knowledge that is needed in running the organization. In order to maintain a seat on the board one must be contributing to the effort.

        Does the museum have members? Do the members vote on the board positions?

        Why am I picturing that this is happening in a small town in a rather rural area?

    3. Hattie*

      As somebody who’s been in the museum field for quite a while and worked at her fair share of tiny historical societies — I feel your pain! I think you’re going through some really common (unfortunately) issues that the field is having right now.

      I mentioned this above, but if a consultant isn’t an option (and I could see that idea getting tossed right away), would they at least read an article from AAM or AASLH about board/staff relations? There’s got to be something in the AASLH STEPS program about how to have a functional board at a small museum. There’s also the Small Museums Association that might have resources. Perhaps if you could show them how out of touch your museum is with the wider field they’d come around?

      Also, if you and Jean start to build your own local reputation that might help the board see Steve’s departure with less dread. But ultimately, this is an issue of a board needing to do their jobs better. They have a big responsibility and right now they aren’t fulfilling it.

        1. Hous*

          Yeah, I was gonna suggest this–is accreditation something the board is (or could be persuaded to be) interested in? If so, that might be something OP could use to create a plan to get these changes made; “we need to do X, Y, and Z to meet this accreditation requirement, here’s how we can achieve that” or similar.

            1. Hattie*

              Yeah, I always think American Alliance of Museums first whenever anybody on here uses the acronym — always gives me a funny picture of all the commenters wielding acid-free boxes and nitrile gloves :)

              Though, personally, I would absolutely LOVE to work at an Ask a Manager accredited museum — the museum field needs one of those!

          1. A Non*

            So did I. I was envisioning an audit of all job descriptions, mandatory training for managers, a review of organizational policies for reasonableness, and summary firing of all jerks. I would love to work there. Can we make this happen?

            1. ArtsNerd*

              “AAM certified: We’ve Verified that Management Does Their Effing Jobs.”

              Forget those “best places to work” lists. I want to go into a new job knowing the employer isn’t going to show up on WTF Wednesday.

    4. J.B.*

      You see Annie’s advice above. I can think of similar situations with volunteer boards. There are organizations that do board training, maybe some professional society would have resources you can tap?

      Why are the different board members on there? Did they feel compelled to volunteer or is there some other reason? It may be that there are some who would prefer not to be on the board anymore, just feel some responsibility to stay. Would there be other community members who might step up, including some with fundraising skills?

    5. Sanonymous*

      First check out http://www.blueavacado.org. It’s a great resource for non-profits.

      We implemented term limits on our board seven years ago. That’s had it’s ups and downs but has been positive overall.

      Honestly, the best course in this situation is to lay it all out for the board. Either they want to improve and promote their mission, or they want a “club”. Make them decide, and then move forward. You’ve got to get aligned on mission, and right now that’s your biggest problem. It will suck if they really just want a club, but then moving forward can be clear. However, if you’ve already moved forward x amount, I suspect you can lead them into buying in to your mission and future.

    6. GigglyPuff*

      Run… but if you can’t, is there anyone on the board you can lay out all the problems to? Someone who would back you, maybe the one who was willing to help with mediation? Based on the fact that they finally hired professional staff it seems like they want to move the museum to the next level, sounds like they just avoid conflict at all cost and that needs to stop, because they are going to crash and burn if they don’t change.

    7. Em*

      You’ve got to get someone on the board that is willing to make changes (preferably a local business member or someone with finance or marketing background so they have experience to stand on). If they are radical enough, and willing to recruit new members, this will make the old ones uncomfortable and they will be forced to change.

    8. squid*

      “How to handle the board’s dysfunctionality…”

      Route 1 would be to ignore them entirely. Just do what you think is right, and go forward as if there was no board at all, until there are consequences. I don’t recommend this.

      But you can’t manipulate or persuade the board into becoming competent a little bit at a time, and carrying on as-is is not sustainable. They need to realize, themselves, that they are not functioning effectively. This realization could be transformational, or it could be explosive and acrimonious.

      Hiring a consultant might work. It might also result in a nice document that everyone promptly ignores. Don’t spend money to bring someone on unless you have a reasonable expectation that at least some board members are invested in the process.

      Frankly I think you’re right at the edge of a crisis, and that crisis will allow some much-needed change to happen. The trouble is this is likely to also result in loss and damage, to finances, to collections, to human resources, to reputation in the community.

      Ideally it would hurt enough that the current board is able to recognize the cost of their inaction/mismanagement, but without doing harm to your poor staff members or your unique/most valuable collections. Also, ideally, the blame for the crisis would fall where it ought to, on the dysfunctional board as a group, and not on individual scapegoats.

      You need a good percentage of the board to step down, particularly anyone who was slacking, and anyone who is getting themselves emotionally involved in the day-to-day stuff. You also need some board members, particularly those more open to changing their role, to stick around a few years yet to bring newcomers up to speed.

      Now are you, personally, up to the arduous challenge of staying on in your role as ED through a crisis, managing from a sort of harm-reduction perspective, and personally being the buffer between board and staff/volunteers? If that doesn’t sound like a fun adventure, then yes, run.

      Losing staff may be an appropriate crisis to bring about transformation, but then again it might be swept under the rug to keep things running as usual.

      You can also try some of the board training, consultancy, term limits, etc as suggested, but I have a feeling that a board this dysfunctional may just as happily ignore all of those suggestions as well.

    9. squid*

      And some questions that may help clarify:

      – How many board members are there? How are their formal duties determined, and do they stick to those? (Is this the best number of board members for an organization your size/complexity?)

      – What is the official reporting relationship between you and the board? Do you attend meetings, or report solely through the president or an executive?

      – Outside of official museum business, is there personality conflict, has the board become a clique, do they know each other well enough? do staff and volunteers ever have informal (friendly, not dysfunctional) contact with board members?

      – As a non-profit, are you funded primarily by donors, by many grants, by a majority sponsoring organization? Are you responsible to city or state/province taxpayers? Is the lack of professionalism or lack of appropriate board action affecting your funding in any way that you can point to?

      1. OP*

        There are 15 board members, which is too many for this organization, in my opinion. There are no formal duties spelled out. The board meets every month and breaks off into several committees that do things like decide what to order for the gift shop. I attend every board and committee meeting. As far as I can tell, the only duties that are enforced as a board member are to be a member of the organization and to serve on at least one committee.

        I report to the board’s co-presidents, although sometimes the entire board (an example: the whole board filled out my last performance evaluation, and then the co-presidents read it to me).

        There is some interaction between board and staff. Board members volunteer at the museum sometimes, and everyone runs into each other at events and the like. Everyone gets along pretty well, but I wouldn’t say it’s a clique.

        We are not a government or city entity. We are funded by donors and members mostly, and do get some grants.

        Also, to answer someone else’s question, the board is elected by the membership base each year. However, it is treated as a joke by the board members, and no one has ever nominated someone new. The only way new board members come on is if the existing board goes out and finds someone interested from the community and has them start coming to meetings, then the membership votes them in at the next annual meeting. And the only way the officers change is if one of them steps down and then the position is filled, usually by two people (we have co-presidents, a treasurer, and co-secretaries. I kid you not. Why it takes two people to be the secretary, I do not know).

        1. Hattie*

          Wow — that could be a hypothetical example from grad school to exemplify poor governance! Sounds like you have your work cut out for you to bring them all into the 21st century. IT really can be done, either through a lot of exposure to professional standards or something really bad blowing up in their face — I’ve actually seen improvements come from both scenarios. Neither are tons of fun, but it can happen!

        2. majigail*

          15 is actually a good number… when you have turnover and everyone is busy doing their committee work. You need term limits for sure. And this co- business is silly if you ask me, but not the worst of your problems.
          I’d definitely look for board consultants to help, but my first step would be to make strong allies of a few key people to start to effect some change. I’ve been able to make major changes in my org by being part of professional organizations and going to seminars and taking that back.
          You’ll need to get involved in nominating. I know it’s supposed to be the board’s deal, but they’re not doing it and you need new blood.
          A strategic plan will help the board see where they want to go and help them figure out how they’re planning on paying for that and hopefully get them to start lending a hand in fundraising…. Give, Get, or Get Off. Harsh, but true.

  33. Ruffingit*

    OP, you and Jean both need to leave this organization. This is a clusterfudge of enormous proportions. If the board wants Steve to run amok unmanaged, let them have him. Never was there a better example of “be careful what you wish for…”

    You didn’t ask this, but I’m going to say it. YOU need to leave. Jean should definitely leave since the disrespect you and the board have shown her is above and beyond what anyone should have to endure, but I seriously would consider getting out as well if I were you. This just isn’t going to end well.

      1. LQ*

        Yeah I thought about the insurance thing as well, it could be really easy to get into a situation where you (the op) is in serious financial and monetary hot water if the correct insurance and firewalls haven’t been set up.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      OP, it looks to me like you came pretty close to finding your dream job. It is okay to let go of this one. You will find a better one.

      This board has no interest in retaining you and Jean. None.

      Several things threw me over to the solution of “Run!” 1) There are more volunteers like Steve. 2) The board is entrenched and does not want to change, even though it says it wants to the walk does not match the talk. 3) The 12 off site locations. This is not collecting this is hoarding. If it were a collection there would be top concern about getting it out where the public could see it. There would be facts and information about the item prepared so that the public could learn something/anything. But this is not what is happening. The name of the game here is Acquire.

      On the good side of things, OP, just from the little I have read here, I have a very high opinion of you and of Jean. I think you both have something to offer that someone will truly appreciate. I think you are a sincere person who wants to do the best job possible. Keep that- it will carry you far.

  34. some1*

    How exactly was the museum going to enforce any decision the mediator might have made against Steve, since he’s accountable to no one?

    1. Ruffingit*

      Exactly and not only that, bringing in a mediator suggests that Jean may somehow be in the wrong and need to change her methods of operation when in fact, the problem is not her at all. She’s simply trying to do her job. Basically, bringing in a mediator is telling her “So, um, you know we want you to work here and bring us all your expertise and everything, but we also want you to cowtow to this guy who’s treating you with total disrespect. So um, if you could just do that, that’d be great…”

      1. some1*

        I agree that the mediation is unnecessary, but so many other commenters pointed that out :). I figured I’d address the fact that it’d be a exercize in futility — Steve is going to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants so hiring a mediator would be a waste of time and money.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      The only inroad I have seen yet is Steve’s authority to make acquisitions comes from the board.

  35. LBK*

    Oh nooooooo please don’t try to mediate this. One person is doing things wrong and one person is doing things right. This situation doesn’t need mediation, it needs discipline. As someone who tried to mediate what was really a disciplinary issue and ended up with the two involved parties screaming at each other like an episode of Jerry Springer, I urge you to do whatever you can to discourage the board from going forward with this idea. Just don’t. It will end horribly.

    1. Ruffingit*

      I want to hear your mediation story because I’m totally nosy like that. Waiting… ;)

      1. LBK*

        Oh boy. Well, a new employee started flirting with one of my existing employees and by all signs to outsiders (myself included) she was receptive to it and flirted back. At some point it either went too far or she just wasn’t interested anymore, which she told him. He didn’t react well, ie harassing her via text and constantly switching his shifts around to avoid working with her. I was a newer supervisor but my manager asked me to speak to the new employee about his behavior.

        I had a close relationship with the existing employee (we’d been at the same level for about a year and then I got promoted to be supervisor of our department) so I made the mistake of telling her I was going to speak with the guy and she asked if she could be there for the conversation, which I naively thought sounded perfectly reasonable so she could explain her side of the story.

        Needless to say, I was woefully unprepared for what happened when I put the two of them together in a room to talk about their differences. They were yelling so loudly that my GM overheard it from the sales floor (this was in retail) and came into the office to settle things. He was a master at diffusing situations and getting to the root of issues so he mediated/disciplined them appropriately, and funny enough the two employees actually ended up dating for a while after the incident!

        The GM also pulled me aside after and said I was way in over my head with that kind of conflict and I should’ve told my manager I wasn’t suited to handle it (but in half-laughing kind of way, like he was amused I thought it was totally reasonable for me to attempt to address what was basically sexual harassment with only a month of management experience). It was a good lesson for me about knowing the limits of my management abilities and knowing when something is a personality conflict that needs mediation vs. a behavioral issue that requires discipline.

          1. LBK*

            He was definitely one of the best I’ve had. Very blunt at times and not given to pleasantries, but knew how to get results out of people, knew how to back up his employees while balancing business needs (really critical in retail/customer service) and most importantly he didn’t flinch at some of the most uncomfortable aspects of management. He made me a much better manager and employee in the long run.

  36. Jean*

    Yikes, what a horrible situation! Sympathies, and best wishes for resolving everything without more suffering. Even if it seems disruptive (for example, it means moving to a new city) it might be wise to pursue alternatives.

    My Inner Stand-up Comedian recommends that–after the crisis is settled–you submit (to the appropriate professional, scientific, or clinical journal) a description of the personnel and procedural entanglements at your current workplace. Title your work “Cure for Narcolepsy Discovered in Unlikely Venue.” This horror show currently on display at your museum would keep anybody awake for a week.

    P.S. Just for the record, I’m not the same person as the Jean who works in the museum described by the OP.

  37. Camellia*

    I don’t have time right now to read through the comments to see if anyone has mentioned this yet, but you may also need to change the locks/keypad PINs/whatever other security features you may have that grant Steve access to the premises.

  38. sionainnigans*

    This problem and the comments/advice are fascinating. OP, good luck with everything- you seem to have such a mountain to decimate in front of you. Please send us an update!

  39. Em*

    Also. I’d venture to say this is not a museum (with no proper leadership, mission statement, or collections policies and it seems no intention in the institution as a whole to meet any of those ethical or professional standards) it is for all purposes a cabinet of curiosities. I was going to argue with everyone and say there is no point in running because almost all small museums have this problem (and I still think to some degree this is true) but this is beyond bad practice. The board is fooling itself if it thinks this is anywhere close to a professional institution. So, I’d be looking for new work unless you and Jean are able to band together and fight a very long uphill battle.

  40. Canuck*

    The two biggest red flags for me in this situation are:

    1) The museum instructed the OP to *not* manage Steve??? That’s a completely ridiculous approach to take with anyone, employee or volunteer, working at the museum.

    2) The museum feels like they cannot “lose” the relationships that Steve has built up with donors – yet knowing that he has declared his intent to retire several times, have done nothing to manage the transition.

    The board that the OP reports to comes across as very inexperienced to me, and needs to let the OP do their job and run the museum properly.

    1. OldAdmin*

      I would go even further and say Steve is the inofficial *owner* of the museum,. never mind what it might say on silly little bits of paper. Sigh.

  41. Museum Professional Here*

    Hey OP! I’m an arts/museum professional. I’ve worked in major museums (Smithsonian, National Gallery) as well as regional art and cultural museums. So I know what you’re dealing with.

    1. You need to have a conversation with your board chair (or any alley on your board) about needed to rein in Steve. This is unacceptable and you cannot run a museum like this. They need to back you up and have the conversation with you.
    2. You need to talk to Steve and map out a strategy to a) get the collection out of his house, b) finalize a transition document to allow Jean to take on all of the duties, and c) meet with all of the potential and current donors with or without Steve so you take on those responsibilities.
    3. So Steve doesn’t feel like you’re running him out, have a public recognition of his service to the museum.
    4. You need to look into MAP (http://www.aam-us.org/resources/assessment-programs/MAP).
    5. Start a Collections Committee for your board. Jean will be the staff liaison for this committee. AAM has more information on this structure and tasks.
    6. Be clear with the Board and the staff that you are in command of the museum. Anything less than that is unacceptable. Stand your ground on this.

    I hope that helps!

    1. OP*

      Thanks for the advice! We are applying for the organizational MAP this year, and I really hope we get it.

      We do have a collections committee, although they meet about once every year and are not really helpful. Really, a lot of roadblocks I run into are because of dysfunctional committees who have lots of opinions but no follow-through.

      1. Hattie*

        That’s great! MAP could really help you all (mostly Steve and the board) see how things SHOULD be done. In an ideal world the combination of you, Jean, and the MAP people telling them the same thing will change their minds over time — have faith, I’ve seen it happen before!

        Good Luck!

      2. majigail*

        One of my board members has the title: Advice Implementation Manager at his corporate job. I keep telling him I need one of those.

  42. Museum Professional*

    #1. Find a good lawyer.
    #2. Clean up your board.
    #3. Update your policies.
    #4. Deal with the aftermath of Steve.

    This ain’t gonna be pretty, and from my experience, you need to tread carefully because you may find illegal activity all up and down the board. Good luck!

  43. Brett*

    I have not read through the whole thread yet, but just how do you “fire” a volunteer like this?
    If Steve truly does not want to go, and decides to continue acting exactly the way he has been with no changes, what do you do next? Ban him from the property? Cease and desist letters? Restraining orders?
    (And how do you pull that off without him using his connections to try to cause very serious damage?)

  44. Hummingbird*

    Also, make a museum policy that no one – neither paid staff nor volunteers – are to take anything home or remove anything from the museum grounds/offices!

    It bothers me he has stuff at his house. Do you have any clue what he has? Who’s to say he isn’t keeping a few things? You might have more problems with him here!

  45. cv*

    Many commenters have addressed the real issues with the board, and others have suggested that Steve needs to go. I agree wholeheartedly, but it those may not be realistic in the short term.

    Have you considered redirecting Steve’s energy? I’ve worked at small nonprofits with Steve-like people, though never quite as bad, and sometimes coming up with a project for them can help. If he’s really just lonely, bored, having trouble letting go, and wanting to feel appreciated, figure out how best to use him. “Steve, we really want to mark the 20th anniversary of the museum’s founding/honor the legacy of a local figure who was born 100 years ago next year/celebrate the town’s sesquicentennial/do something special to celebrate a successful fundraising campaign. We’d like to publish a history of the town/speak to every middle-school history class in the county/write a weekly column in the local paper showcasing items from our collection that aren’t on display. Your expertise in the subject of our museum/knowledge of its history/network of community contacts make you the perfect person to do this. We can shift your existing responsibilities to other staff to free up your time for this important project.”

    It has to be something useful to the museum’s mission but not critical to the organization’s operations, and it’s best if it’s a self-contained project. In the situation at the nonprofit I worked at, it softened the blow of easing the person out of the day-to-day details of the organization, flattered them that their knowledge and experience was important, and actually did result in a couple of nice end products. It took some staff time and money to manage, but it was well worth it.

    1. Decimus*

      Oooh that’s a great idea. You might even encourage him to lead a membership drive that might bring in new people (who you, then, could suggest running for the Board).

    2. cv*

      I realized after I suggested this that it might still be seen as “managing” Steve. But it might be an easier to sell to the board: “Steve’s expertise is such a valuable resource for the museum, but it could be put to much better use doing x, especially now that we have new staff on board to handle y tasks. Would you approach him about this with me?” vs. “Steve’s a pain in the butt. Please help me kick this well-meaning old friend of yours out of the organization that’s been his life’s work for over a decade.”

      It can help to try to figure out where Steve’s need to remain involved is coming from, and tailor your approach accordingly. Does he want to feel needed, and is he used to feeling like the place can’t run without him? Does he just really like the subject matter that the museum focuses on? Is he lonely if he doesn’t come to the museum every day?

      When you’ve poured your heart and soul into something for years, it can be really hard and kind of devastating to realize it can carry on perfectly well without you. I learned that lesson when groups I was involved with in high school survived me going off to college, but it sounds like Steve may not get it. It can be hard to handle the situation that creates, but try to have some sympathy for him.

  46. T*

    OP, I normally read through more comments before responding, but there are so many, so I apologize if I’m repeating information posted by another commenter.

    I’m a new museum professional, so I’m familiar with and put some thought into the kind of issues your now facing. I’m not sure how long you’ve been in the field, but my number one suggestion is to get help from someone outside your organization. I’m not thinking a mediator, as suggested by your board, but rather a mentor or peer (depending on how long you’ve been in your current position–I don’t think I’d worry to much about the label). Anyway, find someone (or several people) in a similar position who have successfully dealt with difficult boards of trustees. I think this is a touchy subject for a lot of directors (as is the volunteer issue). However, you cannot do your job successfully if your hands are tied. I think you need a clear outline of what your role is in distinction from what the board’s role is. Although they hold you accountable, I don’t believe that they should be telling you how or who to manage. I assume you are already a member of one or more professional organizations such as AAM or a regional association. If you’re not already on LinkedIn, set up a profile and join some of the museum interest groups. Post a question about how to deal with your board and make contact with directors who have done this well. If you already have contacts (specifically directors, and especially in small museums), pick their brains for suggestions of how to handle this situation. I think establishing the right relationship between you and the board is as significant as how you resolve the volunteer issue.

    I do have a few thoughts of my own. You mentioned a move towards professionalization and attempting to use best practices. Has your board embraced this move? Have you though about going through a formal assessment program, such as AAM’s MAP or AASLH’s StEPs program? I think your board should listen to you when you tell them what is appropriate, but if they have a hard time grasping it fully (because we’ve always done it that way…), then having a professional organization show you what is the right way to handle collections or manage your organization should help.

    I did see one of your comments where you mentioned that Steve has objects in his home because your collections are scattered all over. Can you get your board (or development committee, if you have one) to work on funding for long-term, museum-controlled storage for all your collections? Renting a climate controlled storage unit or space from a larger museum are a couple options. If I were in your shoes, I would do what I could to get things out of Steve’s and other people’s houses before the situation gets worse.

    I also wonder if Steve felt like he should have been appointed to the collections manager position. If he stepped down from a paid position and then was passed over when a new paid position was created, that might be part of the problem (I would not be happy in that situation). If that’s the case, why was he passed over? Since the board would have been involved in that decision and selected Jean because of her qualifications, maybe you can remind them of this and point out that they should support Jean in doing her job correctly and you in running the museum well.

    I think you are in a truly difficult situation. If you are in a small community where everyone knows Steve, upsetting him could cause all sorts of problems. It sounds like that may be what the board is afraid of. I think you need to determine what the possible outcomes are so you can prepare for them strategically. What would you do if Steve pulled his financial support? What if he stopped helping you get donations of objects or money? What if he spoke bad to supporters so that they stopped investing in your museum? You could come up with alternate financial sources (I know, easier said than done) and make your own inroads with community members and supporters so that Steve’s role becomes less important (3rd point on Alison’s list).

    I do not mean by this that you should alienate Steve, but rather that you should be aware that he could be offended (sounds like he already is) and react poorly. You should plan to mitigate any ill will on his part while doing as Alison suggests by establishing and enforcing boundaries and the proper chain of command. As you articulate your expectations to Steve and hold him accountable to proper standards, you could also look for ways to show respect to him for his years of service. If you make him archivist, for instance, that could show that you value his expertise in that area but would not undermine you or Jean if his role falls under her express leadership as collections manager (it sounds like you’ve tried something similar with the exception of the board tying your hands about managing him). Or you could establish a collections committee and allow him and other appropriate community members to be part of it. Again, this should also reinforce Jean’s role as collections manager. On a side note, your collections policy and plan should lay out how acquisitions are done and by whom and what is the scope of your collections goals. That should alleviate some of the tension about what Jean accepts. It should also help you cull your collections if you are considering deaccessioning anything. If you have objects that do not fit with your collections plan and your mission, you could divest yourself of many of these items and use the proceeds towards storage solutions for the remaining objects.

    Anyway, these are just my thoughts. I apologize if they seem too obvious, and you’ve probably already tried some of them, but I hope it helps. I think the bottom line is getting the board to cooperate with you as the director and support the museum so that you don’t all have to be afraid of Steve withdrawing his support. Then politely and respectfully lay down the law so that the option to follow your leadership and support the museum or to do things his own way and part ways is really his decision.

    By the way, I’d like to hear how this turns out.

  47. Kiwi*

    I cannot believe that this guy has been allowed to hold your museum (and its exhibits) hostage like this and for so long.

    Your first priority here is recovery of the “misacquired” items held in Steve’s house.

    I would suggest that you inform Steve that your insurers require a detailed stocktake to occur (you should be conducting these anyway…) and that all stock must be stocktaken on site at the Museum itself (so that he cannot volunteer to “stocktake” from his house). Do this and ensure that all stock is back on site before proceeding further.

    Once this is completed, review your security. It should not be possible for Museum stock to be removed from the site without that act being caught on camera multiple times and from multiple angles.

    Once you have the power back, you can deal with his personality, work issues and authority issues.

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