update: our museum volunteer is out of control

Remember the letter-writer who managed a museum that was saddled with a rogue volunteer who no one could control (and who was protected by the board of directors)? Here’s the update.

Unfortunately, this is not a particularly happy update. Since I wrote in last April, three of our board members have met with Steve several times to discuss his involvement in the organization. At each meeting, Steve would agree to certain things and then change his mind or not follow through (example: Steve agrees he will come up with a list of projects he would like to focus on; the list never materializes).

Steve is manipulative and hard to deal with – he hijacks conversations and turns them to completely different topics, so it was hard for these board members to get through to him. The board members weren’t super interested in rocking the boat, so each time he agreed to something and then didn’t follow through, they gave him another chance. Basically, it got to be this endless cycle of them having the same conversation with him about every six weeks since May. They would not allow me to attend these meetings because they think Steve doesn’t respect me.

In July, they changed the locks “as a routine security measure” but really to try to make Steve so mad he leaves on his own. It did make Steve fleetingly consider leaving, but really it just made other long-time volunteers upset (who had previously had keys) and drove a big wedge between staff, volunteers, and the board. It was a really rough few months.

Once everyone got used to the new policies in conjunction with the key situation, everything calmed down this fall. One of Steve’s friends is ill, so Steve took two months off to help him out. When he returned at the beginning of October and requested a key, the board members met with him again and really tried to pin him down on some issues (and told him he’s not getting a key). He agreed to send update emails to me and the board members (he is working on a lot of projects and with a lot of donors that no one else knows about). He did actually send a couple of the email updates, and I’ve seen some improvements from him in other ways since that last meeting. He is taking more time off through the end of the year to continue to help his friend.

I am now kind of resigned to the fact that we are just waiting for him to leave on his own at this point. But there’s a lot still up in the air, including the fact that he’s still holding a lot of our collections at his home. He has decided to remove us from his will and is instead donating his estate to the local university. I don’t think the board will stand up to him any more than they already have, so I’m just waiting for the next ball to drop.

Meanwhile, Jean is much happier and is fitting in better with the rest of the staff now that Steve isn’t looming over her. We are in the middle of a Museum Assessment Program assessment, with a reviewer visiting in March. I am looking forward to talking to her about the issues with the board and Steve, and seeing another perspective on it all.

{ 118 comments… read them below }

  1. Samantha*

    How crazy that this organization is being held hostage by an out of control volunteer! I don’t see how there could be any other perspective to be seen other than this guy needs to go, NOW. The board needs to stop being so passive and take steps to sever the relationship with Steve and retrieve the collections from his home.

    1. MK*

      Well, it’s not really an out-of-control volunteer, it’s an out-of-control donor/benefactor/someone with access to other donors. I agree that the board is handling this very badly, but not that they are crazy to not just fire him. Them trying to set some boundaries resulted in the museum losing a legacy (possibly a sizeable one); if they fire him, he could simply stop all support to the museum and get the donors he has access to do the same (no matter how difficult he is, it will not look good for the museum to fire someone who has offered so much to them), not to mention that he can force them to go to court to retrieve their collections, at great cost and negative publicity. It’s a difficult situation to balance.

      1. Anna*

        Except that it’s this crazy behavior that started this whole thing in the first place. Steve is using his legacy as blackmail to behave poorly. It doesn’t sound like he’s currently offering them anything they can’t get from someone who isn’t a nutty volunteer. I work for an organization that relies solely on volunteers, and we have had to have difficult conversations, but at no point is the integrity of our organization worth putting up with horrible behavior.

      2. BethRA*

        There’s no guarantee he wouldn’t have dropped them in the future anyway, and while they do risk losing his cash contributions, they risk a great deal more by not dealing with him appropriately. And at this point they’d hardly be “just firing him” as they’ve been talking to him about these issues for months.

        1. MK*

          I don’t know that we can make that assessment with the information provided. I have known of a case when the board alienating one donor lead to a mass exodus of the oroginal major benefactors and the closing of a charity. I am not saying the board is right in this case, just that their chooses might make sense from their point of view. The problem is that the situation has been allowed to go so far that there probably no clean solutions.

          1. Barefoot Librarian*

            Having been involved in a couple of college and university museums, I can second these concerns. Sometimes these types of organizations exist in whole or part at the whim of the donor network and beneficiaries. Interpersonal relationships are everything. I’m horrified by some of the things Steve is doing, but if he’s tight with the donor network there can be serious repercussions to alienating him. It’s an ugly situation. I don’t envy the OP.

    2. The Earl Marshal*

      I agree, he needs to leave NOW. While it is great he has dedicated a lot of years to this organization, the insane level of recent problems he is creating has in my opinion far outweighed his contribution to the organization. I also find it unsettling that he has some collection items at home. Why? Who would be liable if something breaks at his house? Also, removing the organization from his will was a really petty move that shows he’s vindictive. The organization should have told the OP to tell him to give back what he has and get rid of him!!

    3. Angora*

      He sounds like an elderly relative saying “you are in my will” along with a list of expectations and demands requiring you to do in order to get this supposedly windfall upon their death.

      Jean should find another job, and forget this mess.

    4. Cafe Au Lait*

      Here’s the thing: he’s not a volunteer. He “gave up” his pay to help out the organization. I”m sure he feels that the organization owes him in someway.

      But yeah, whoever let Steve take home parts of the collection was bonkers. I wouldn’t be surprised if a court order is needed to retrieve the materials from his house.

  2. Diet Coke Addict*

    Wait, he is still keeping museum collections at his home, and the board is STILL seeing nothing wrong with this??? And they opted to change the locks to passive-aggressive him out of the picture?

    Everything about this is tremendously messed up and I cannot imagine how frustrating it would be to actually work there.

    1. BOMA*

      This! Changing the locks like that is incredibly passive-aggressive, and of COURSE it’s going to upset long-term volunteers and drive a wedge between them and the staff. It sounds like the board of directors knows that Steve is a problem and is just being cowardly about facing the issue.

      1. BOMA*

        Also, the fact that he’s meeting with donors and nobody else knows what goes on in the meetings is mind-boggling. Have none of the board members tried to sit in on those meetings?

        1. KerryOwl*

          Somehow I have a feeling that no one else knows about these meetings until they have already occurred.

          1. BOMA*

            Hmm I didn’t think about it that way, but you might be right. If so, that’s even worse though. I’ve worked in some pretty dysfunctional nonprofits and even that wouldn’t fly there.

        2. RR*

          I’m also wondering if they’re meeting or just “meetings”. Are they actually taking place? If so, is Steve presenting himself as having the board’s backing for any promises he makes? Is the board on the hook for any promises he makes? If he’s actually meeting with people, someone else needs to be there.

          1. OP*

            Yes, we’re all on the hook for the promises he makes. And yes, no one knows the meetings happen until after the fact. The best way I can describe it is that he acts like he’s the executive director. And since he’s been with the organization so long, no one questions him.

            1. Melissa*

              Are you legally on the hook or is it just a social/business sort of thing? I’m trying to imagine a situation in which the Board cannot say “I’m very sorry that Steve promised you X, but is not an official representative of Y Museum anymore and he did so without asking for permission.” That situation is one in which the donor/benefactor who was promised X was Steve’s fraternity brother/freshman roommate/some other close other. But if it’s just a regular benefactor who has been donating to the museum for years, surely they understand that people quit and retire from jobs all the time and that new people replace them, and that there are new collections managers in place?

              1. MK*

                But this isn’t a case of him quitting or retiring, he is basically being forced out. No matter how justified the museum is in doing this, I wouldn’t bet on the donor’s understanding. If Steve has a years-long relationship with this donor, that goes back to when they started their giving, not to mention if Steve was the one who sold them on the museum’s cause, the donor might not be willing to work with a new person.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          He has to keep on having secret meetings that is part of how he gains leverage over this situation. So the secret meetings will continue.

      2. BRR*

        It seems nobody has been direct about it. I’m guessing Steve knows though as he changed his will. I wish the OP would deal with Steve directly as everything going on is likely to make employees not want to stay.

        1. Kat*

          It’s not up to the OP, nor is it her place to deal with him directly. The board of directors needs to actively do something about this.

    2. WalkingDead*

      Yeah, this was a big red flag for me. I can’t imagine how they don’t see this as a potential problem. Especially since he has written the museum out of his will, I could see those collection pieces disappearing with no way to reclaim ownership.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Yes – my first thought was – Steve’s place needs to be cataloged immediately so there is clear understanding what items are his collection and what items are the museums – otherwise, if his will is vague, the university he is donating to could assume everything in his house is his personal collection and therefore part of the donation.

        1. SJP*

          I think Steves attitude AND the board are just making these so much more complicated than it needs to be.
          The board needs to grow a pair and say to Steve, now, that they’re coming to his house and to remove all collection items (for the reason above of the Uni could think everything in his house will be part of the donation) and that he is a volunteer and a valuable one but he cannot walk about like he owns the place and just doing everything he wants and copping a strop when he doesn’t get his own way.

          OP how you’ve not lost it with this bloke is a credit to your temper control!

        2. WorkingMom*


          The museum needs to send someone to his house to document everything he has that belongs to the museum so that WHEN stuff goes down (because it will) it’s clear what property is his and what belongs to the museum. Yikes.

          I agree, the OP is a saint for putting up with this dysfunctional board!

        3. Laura2*

          Yeah, definitely. Has someone actually SEEN these collections lately, can vouch for them being kept in good condition, good order, actually being there, etc.?

        4. Meg Murry*

          And in addition – now that you know Steve has written the museum out of his will – what would the museum do if he were to die tomorrow and you had to get all the stuff out of his house in 30 days? The time has come to talk money about getting a proper storage facility – because part of the problem with taking the stuff back from Steve is that the org has nowhere to PUT the stuff.

          Right now, the org is beholden to Steve as a free storage facility. You need to find a way to get proper storage in the budget ASAP, so you can get the materials back, and take away this “favor” Steve is doing. Tell him thank you, and then arrange to have the items moved.

          1. Alma*


            Policy Manuals!! Mandatory training!! Letters of Understanding (regarding adherance to policy, signed each year)!! These are for both the Board and volunteers. These documents also spell out the responsibilities of the Executive Director, and will delineate Board responsibilities from those of the Exec Director.

            And first of all, get the collection out of his house, if you have to take the sheriff to gain entry and be sure you have full access. If his house burns down tonight you are up the proverbial creek without a paddle, or a bucket to bail with.

            Your insurer may have suggestions on how to appropriately remove the collection, and anything else, from his home. I would think people who know how to handle the materials correctly (with gloves? boxing and wrapping materials? a vehicle of appropriate size?) should be sent by the museum.

            You should review these events with the attorney of counsel to the museum.

            I will assure you, his reputation is well known to other philanthropists in the area. Dealing with this challenge will set your organization apart. You may phrase this as helping him with this detailed responsibility you are sure he wants to have put to rights carefully and completely while he tends to his friend in his illness.

      2. Melissa*

        Since he’s already written them out of his will, I’d say that he probably already has some animosity towards them and knows something is up – so to me, there’s no reason for the board to continue to try to soft shoe this.

    3. Concerned*

      I agree. If the collection is museum property, can they take some kind of measure to get those items back?

    4. Mochafrap512*

      I would have been afraid he would damage the collections upon finding he had been locked out.

      1. Melissa*

        Yes, I don’t understand the logic behind a board who won’t talk to Steve directly about his need to get with the program and return the collections in his house for fear of pissing him off – but is willing to change the locks in an attempt to piss him off enough that he might quit on his own. That makes no sense.

  3. beyonce pad thai*

    Yikes. He never leaves, has meetings with donors you don’t know about, doesn’t follow the rules, doesn’t respond to directives from management, and hogs information? Sounds like a high fraud risk.

  4. Adam V*

    Steve isn’t leaving *museum property* to the university in his will, correct? If you have an inkling that that’s what he’s intending, you might need to mention that to the board, and potentially sue him now to get the property back before he dies.

    (Also, suing him might have the effect of getting him gone once and for all. Bonus?)

    1. Kerry (Like the County in Ireland)*

      This. I’d lay money on this happening. He is going to leave his house and contents to the university, and since that includes your undocumented collection, your museum is going to get embroiled in a lawsuit or close. Probably close.

    2. Chinook*

      “Steve isn’t leaving *museum property* to the university in his will, correct?”

      If there is even a minut possibility of this happennig, you may want to reach out to the university before his death to let him know about this potential issue. Depending on what he has and how competive the university is, this may or may not head off future problems.

      1. Mochafrap512*

        I don’t know much about wills but if he doesn’t specify that the collections in the home are the museum’s doesn’t it go to the university or go into a court-mandated probate of two or more years?

        1. sstabeler*

          It pretty much depends on if the museum can prove the items are the property of the museum- hence why people have asked the museum to make sure they have it documented what they actually own that is stored at Steve’s place. Regardless, it’d be pretty messy, almost always produces bad press- the headlines would likely be “Museum sues over Steve bequest To University” or, if you have a newspaper that particularly wants to stir shit up- or whoever writes the headline wants to paint the museum in a bad light- “Museum challenges Steve bequest to University”- making it appear the museum is being greedy.

          In short, Steve is either accidentally or deliberately setting up an absolute disaster for the museum- thye either lose items of their collection to the university, potentially making the museum less attractive to potential donors, or they get embroiled in a costly lawsuit, that will make the museum look bad, and will definitely discourage donors. They need to reach out to the University NOW to make sure the university understands that at least part of the items there aren’t Steve’s to give away in his Will. And/or get the items owned by the museum transferred to somewhere else. (hell, you could probably arrange for the items to be loaned to another museum)

    3. Adam*

      This about the only thing I can see working, and I’m generally anti-lawsuit on the grounds that they’re too expensive and life stealing to be worth it in the end. But if he’s got this much stuff held hostage there may be no other recourse.

    4. Elizabeth West*

      I can’t imagine donors being okay with this situation at all. If he’s keeping museum property at his home, they need to make a direct request to him, in writing, for him to return it within a specified amount of time. If he does not, they can send the sheriff to go get it. Because at that point, it’s theft.

      Sueing is a waste of time and money. Get the stuff back, and fire his ass. NOW.

      1. SerfinUSA*

        Theft. Exactly.
        Is there a risk management department for the museum? The university should have one, and should be alerted to possibly stolen property coming their way.
        And someone should involve the police, perhaps anonymously?
        The bottom line though, is that the people in charge of this nonsense are not willing to deal with it, so the OP should avoid internalizing their problems. Been there, done that, and have seen too many other good employees burn themselves out doing the same.

        1. Mister Pickle*

          Yeesh. This is a tough situation. I dislike seconding-guessing the people who write in to AAM, but I have to say that this situation is almost such a “perfect storm” of malfunction that I wonder if OP is either missing something, or is being conspired against, or … I don’t know, just: something seems “off”.

          I, too, wonder if the situation calls for the police. Perhaps quietly. Or perhaps not-so-quietly. And perhaps an independent media consultant to deal with the aftermath. I feel badly even thinking about this, because for all of his faults, Steve has devoted quite a lot to this museum. But I’m wondering if it’s time to consider “police raid to recover stolen museum artifacts”. I know that’s a serious hardball kind of tactic. And I don’t know much about museums, how far out of the ordinary is it to “take a few things home to dress up the den”? It’s sounds outrageous to me. But there’s enough questionable stuff going on here with mysterious donors and donations and artifacts that I think even a St Louis Grand Jury would hand down an indictment.

          (God, I feel very badly about what I just wrote. But based on what OP has shared, it sounds like this has gone far past being just an issue managing a volunteer).

          1. Clever Name*

            Yeah, I have to agree with this assessment. If the museum collection is art or antiquities or fossils, basically anything more valuable than stuff like collections of barbed wire fencing you see at county historical society museums, I’d bet money that Steve is buying and selling stuff on the black market and making a nice tidy profit for himself.

            OP, I really hope you’re keeping written records of how the board is not allowing you to deal with this guy, because if actions that are illegal are turned up in the course of the outside assessment, you may be on the hook, rightly or wrongly. What an insane situation.

      2. themmases*

        This is what I was thinking too.

        Also if I were the OP I would start reaching out to these donors as I find out who they are. If Steve is accepting this stuff for the museum, it must *eventually* make it there. The OP can reach out to thank them then, mention that Steve is essentially retired, and establish herself or Jean as the person to contact in the future.

        If the artifacts never make it to the museum, then Steve is already stealing from both the museum and its donors. That has to look worse to donors and the community than anything a disgruntled former volunteer could possibly say to them.

        1. Jen S. 2.0*

          I thought about this too. OP and staff need to start building their own relationships with these donors. Steve should not be the only one talking to people of importance.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          I would not do well on this board.
          I would push for a public announcement that items and funds were missing from the museum. Anyone who has donate anything in the last X number of years should come forward with that information to aid the process of tracking down the money and items.

          I would also tell Steve that any donations he brings in will be returned to the donor on the grounds that the donor was lead to believe he was donating to a museum, in reality the donor is donating to Steve. If the museum is issuing receipts for money/items- that can be stopped.
          The IRS might be interested in Steve’s extensive collection of antiques to be compare with his earnings over the years.
          IF that will even exists, you cannot will something to someone else when that thing is not yours to begin with.

          It’s very interesting because the museum board is acting like they have a glimmer of hope of ever seeing these items again. If they let go of that hope, then they would find it very easy to file a police report or a lawsuit. Ironically, this in turn might get them their things back.

          Too much of this is being kept in the dark that is why Steve has so much power.

          OP, there is a lot of corruption going on here. I suspect Steve has something on the board members – gossip type thing – and that is his ultimate power. I am concerned for you because you don’t know what parts of the story you are missing here. Take care of yourself, please.

          1. Melissa*

            Yeah, this – I don’t understand why the board just doesn’t do this. Thirteen years is a long time but not a very long time, if you know what I mean – it’s not like the man’s given 30 years of his life to the museum. And unless he’s extremely wealthy, his mismanagement of funds and artifacts could cause an even WORSE scandal in X years when he passes away and it’s found out that he’s been selling off the museums’s collections under their nose or defrauding donors or something.

          2. Alma*

            This, only after the soft, “we do not want to make a public, embarrassing scene that would alienate your contacts” approach has been tried.

            If you’re talking about charitable donations of any kind, if they were not receipted and acknowledged (and perhaps appraised) by the museum, and his friends took tax benefits, they will now have IRS problems because of him. If they thought they were gifting to the museum and it goes to the University, they have IRS problems. So does Steven.

  5. KerryOwl*

    They would not allow me to attend these meetings because they think Steve doesn’t respect me.

    That’s exactly why you should be attending those meetings: so that he can see that you are respected by the Board, which means you deserve his respect, too. Ugh, what a terrible situation.

    1. Elkay*

      I came to say just this. I’d be majorly pissed that the board members were sending the message that it’s ok to not respect the museum manager.

    2. BRR*

      Well put. I know boards at smaller nonprofits tend to be more hands on but managing Steve is the responsibility of the OP.

      1. CAinUK*

        Actually, a huge part of the problem is that the board directed the OP NOT to manage Steve. I feel she would LOVE to have that authority ;)

          1. Frances*

            Yeah, what worries me is that at best, letting him meet with the Board members alone turns this whole thing into a game of Telephone, where the message the OP wants to send gets diluted or twisted and they aren’t there to correct any misconceptions.

    3. Jen S. 2.0*

      Agreed. OP should be there precisely to make sure everyone has the same information, and to present a united front with the Board. If the Board doesn’t want that, then their front is not united.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      Steve knows things that the board does not want OP knowing. That is how it looks to me.

      A sane board would be backing their manager 100%. This board is not acting logically.

    5. Melissa*

      RIGHT. The message needs to be that if Steve does not respect the collections manager, Steve can take his services to another charity.

  6. JMegan*

    The whole thing sounds maddening, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.

  7. Seal*

    So your board decides to deal with a passive-aggressive bully by being passive aggressive themselves? Wow.

    If it weren’t for the fact that you have an assessment by an outsider coming up, I would suggest you leave ASAP. Even then, if the assessment comes down hard on how the board is dealing with Steve and they STILL won’t do anything, you need to get out. People like Steve won’t go unless they are forced out; if the board isn’t willing to do so, five years from now you may well find yourself still waiting for him to leave on his own.

  8. Adam*

    I remember this one. I couldn’t fathom why the museum was letting a private volunteer hold all of these collections in his own house (the insurance issue alone would be a nightmare) but I guess as a small non-profit with a shoe-string budget they were strapped for space resources. So now we have a classic dynamic where one player holds all the cards and he knows it. I have to wonder what he’s getting out of this deal (My instincts say not much more than a smug sense of self-satisfaction, but that’s just me). I’m really sorry OP. You’ve got a stonewall volunteer on one side and a board of jellyfish on the other. This sounds pessimistically unsalvageable at this point.

    1. RR*

      “I have to wonder what he’s getting out of this deal”

      The power trip?

      Seems to me like Steve’s getting everything he wants, still.

      1. Adam*

        That’s about all I could see, assuming he’s not looking to delve into more criminal activities like hocking all the artifacts for cash. Based on the OP’s letters it sounds like the museum is the biggest thing in Steve’s life right now.

        1. Clever Name*

          Maybe I watch too many TV crime dramas, but this is exactly what I think he’s doing. He’s buying and selling stuff on the black market.

  9. CAinUK*

    Steve already removed the museum from his will? Welp, then there’s no longer any benefit to tip-toeing around Steve since he has received the board’s (too) subtle message and reacted accordingly (and badly). He is no longer a long-term, invested volunteer you need to be careful with. He is now someone willfully severing ties with the museum, who still holds parts of your collection, and could be doing other damage you don’t know about (since the museum only interacts with “Steve’s donors” through him). Those donors may already be planning to follow Steve’s new love for the university, per his influence.

    If you can’t get the board to be proactive, at least get the items out of Steve’s house before the assessment as a main priority.

    1. JMegan*

      Agreed, and some of the other damage could be to the artifacts themselves. Do you know if Steve is controlling for temperature, humidity, pests, and security? I know you know this, but storage conditions in a museum are much stricter than in the average person’s basement, attic, or garage.

      Also, would your insurance cover loss or damage to the collection, if it occurs off museum property?

      My guess would be no, to both of the above. And my guess would also be that you’ve already thought of all this as well. I don’t know if you’ve presented it to the board or not, or what they have done with that information, but please do it now if you haven’t already.

      I’m with those who say that suing someone isn’t usually the most effective means of getting what you want, but that it also may be your only option in this case. It looks to me like your choices are to lawyer up, or to write off whatever part of the collection is in his house.

      I’m sorry. What an awful situation to be in.

      1. Natalie*

        Depending on how they acquired their collections, they may also be violating their ethical obligations here. A historical museum, for example, could have items that belong to a particular community or have been lent to them by a family that they should be taking exceptionally good care of.

      2. Melissa*

        I was thinking the same thing – most holdings in a museum are subject to at least some degree of temperature, moisture, and air quality controls. I can’t fathom how he was allowed to take pieces of the collections home, even for free storage, unless he’s very wealthy and happened to get a storage facility built in his backyard or something.

    2. Melissa*

      Or they might be already. Steve is the only one who meets with the donors and apparently no one else knows what is going on with them or has a relationship with them, so for all they know Steve convinced everyone else to write the museum out of their wills before he did it himself and told them all to wait until July, when he’s finished selling the last of the artifacts and is ready to go, and then stop donating or something.

      I mean, I’m exaggerating purposely, but the point is the board has no idea what’s going on with those donors – so their reasoning for tip-toeing is nonsense at this point.

  10. Snarkus Ariellius*

    You need to encourage the board to do two things:

    1) Formally “break up” with Steve via letter.  No more indirect or direct association.  No more volunteering.  No more fundraising.  No more being a museum representative.  Most importantly, no more using his home as a storage unit, which brings me to the second thing…

    2) Your board needs to talk to an attorney even for just an hour.  You need to get those items back by sending a serious nastygram complete with dates for him to comply and consequences if he doesn’t.  Either it comes from the board or an attorney or both (in that order).  

    I know, I know.  Your board doesn’t want to risk the potential money and loss of items.  That’s why they’ve been pussyfooting around.  But it’s precisely their conflict-avoidant behavior that has allowed Steve to ingratiate himself in this matter so much so that you can’t be rid of him.  Of course he feels can call the shots.  He has set everything up so he gets to be in control.

    So take control back.  Yes you might lose money and/or the items.  But, trust me, it’s not a loss.  What you’re getting in return is priceless: no more Steve.  Money and items can be recouped anyway.  You’re getting peace of mind!

    1. brightstar*

      I was about to recommend speaking to an attorney and sending some type of demand to get the items which Steve has at home returned. And that if they aren’t returned, consequences ensue. Because Steve isn’t going to just suddenly act right.

      If I were a donor to this organization and knew of any of these things going on, I would no longer support the organization. The level of control Steve has and his defiance of everything but the board still allowing this to happen is insane and I wouldn’t want to actively support something like that.

      1. Melissa*

        I wouldn’t either, and it wouldn’t be out of anger or anything, but it would be out of the knowledge that my donation (of funds or artifacts) might end up sitting deteriorating in someone’s home rather than stored in the museum, and/or the possibility of gross mismanagement and petty feuds meaning that my donation goes to a place I didn’t intend it to. Donors want to know that the charities they donate to are on the up-and-up administratively.

    2. Sleepyhead*

      This was my thought too. Steve should outright be let go. It might be possible to set up a courier to go get the documents from his home – I wonder if he’d push back at that point or realize he’d be better just handing them over.

      It’s so sad the Board has basically lost control of their organization by trying to bend to the will of one volunteer/former employee. It’s frustrating to potentially lose contacts and donors, but those can be built back up.

      It sounds like it would be a good idea to bring someone in to consult and perhaps help set up a 3-year strategic plan to better understand the roles of the Board, volunteers, and employees. My own non-profit underwent many changes over the last 5-7 years after consulting with a strategic planner – most positive, but part of the result was basically losing our official volunteer program. We had 2 long-term volunteers stay on but they had to be talked to multiple times about the fact that the culture and programs of the agency had changed and they could no longer do many of the duties they once had because they simply weren’t necessary or appropriate anymore – but they kept trying to do them anyway. They both ended up leaving on slightly sour terms because all they could see was the loss of opportunities for volunteers rather than all the positive changes that had been made for the people utilizing the organizations services.

    3. JMegan*

      The items are as good as gone at this point anyway, because as brightstar said above, Steve isn’t going to suddenly just decide to return them out of the goodness of his heart.

      So I would revise this excellent advice just a bit:

      a) Decide if you want the items back, or if you’re going to write them off. Also, how much effort are you willing to put into getting them back before you pull the plug?

      b) Get rid of Steve. The timing of his departure, and how much weight you throw behind it, depends on your answer to A above. If you’re willing to write off everything in his house immediately, then you can have one last, very quick, meeting with Steve today and have security escort him off the premises. If you decide you do want to get some of the stuff back, you may decide to try a more collaborative approach with him.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      This is part of what I am having a hard time with- the items are in Steve’s house. The board does not have access. Steve will not turn them over.

      And the board is worried about losing the items?? hello. The items are ALREADY lost.

    5. OldAdmin*

      At this point, the items already *are* lost. Seriously.
      Anything that can be recovered is not an entitlement, but a nice to have.

  11. Mimmy*

    That is seriously messed up. This guy has you all over a barrel. Just goes to show the power of donors, which isn’t always a good thing.

  12. John*

    As a board member, I have to say that this board is handling this terribly. They don’t want the ED in on the meetings because they don’t think Steve respects her? Tough. They are undermining her.

    To me, this is about you taking back the control that you need to be effective. Are they behaving this way in other aspects of your job?

    Our board brought in a governance expert, who was great at defining what the role of a board is and isn’t. The big takeaway is we don’t manage the place; we hire and fire the executive director to do that for us. We certainly don’t intervene with staff. It was a wakeup call, in some respects. Maybe you need to conduct a similar exercise in the name of creating clear job descriptions for them and you.

    The board should not be overly involved in this, unless you need their support, but you should still be in the driver’s seat, with them along to show that they are backing you.

    1. Adam*

      Everything I see about this board makes me think they’re the most passive-aggressive ineffectual board one could be saddled with. The unfortunate thing is they’re dealing with an individual who’s got ties to what sound like some major patrons of the institution not to mention stockpiling who knows how many pieces in his house. While there’s gotta be some sort of legal recourse for sorting all that out he’d have plenty of time to do whatever he feels like if someone chooses to rub him the wrong way which may be one reason why no one’s willing to get serious with him. This power dynamic is so incredibly lopsided it’s downright disheartening.

      1. OhNo*

        “This power dynamic is so incredibly lopsided it’s downright disheartening.”

        Seriously, the relationship between Steve, the OP, and the board is absolutely crazypants. The OP needs to have control over volunteers – including Steve – in order to run this museum effectively, but it sounds like the board is undermining her at every turn. Not to mention that after writing the museum out of his will (!), they have no real reason to continue contact with him.

        This whole thing is like a gangrenous limb on the organization. OP, I wish you could amputate the whole thing and start fresh with the authority you need, but it sounds like the board is shaking in their shoes at the mere thought of being effective.

      2. John*

        The thing that boards and EDs have to understand is that if those major donors are halfway intelligent and in it for the right reasons, a character like Steve won’t be able to get them to close up their checkbooks if he leaves or badmouths the organization.

        The board and ED need to connect with those donors ASAP if they haven’t already so they can build solid relationships of their own. Then when/if it comes to the point where they have to get Steve out of there for good, they can immediately place some calls to do damage control. Every nonprofit deals with variations on this because donors form relationships with EDs and staff and sometimes those EDs and staff need to be replaced. Yes, a donor here or there might be lost, but I’d hazard a guess that those donors were looking for an excuse to exit. And the good of all donors is greater than preserving those individual donor relationships by overlooking issues like Steve.

        Even if you can’t share with donors the details of Steve’s misconduct, being able to say, “We have a responsibility to do what is in the best interests of our donors and the organization, and we are confident we’ve carried it out thoughtfully in this situation” will convey plenty.

        1. Adam*

          This may be a dumb question on my part, but the way things are described here does the organization even know who a lot of these donors even are? It sounds like Steve has taken it upon himself as being the primary contact between these particular patrons and the museum who appears have little to no real involvement in Steve’s activities.

          In any sane institution my question wouldn’t even come up, but nothing about this situation is sane…

          1. John*

            You’re right; it sounds like a really screwed up situation that has escalated beyond reason. However, if people are writing checks, they will want them to be tax-deductible so will make them directly to the museum, right?

            1. Adam*

              One would think. But if that were the case the organization really wouldn’t have too much about alienating a good amount of donors by limiting/removing one volunteer. Now that I think about it, maybe I missed it in the two letters by the OP but I have never gotten a good idea of what exactly it is that Steve DOES for the museum, aside from being an offsite storage locker and donor liaison. He’s apparently such a fixture in the institution that people are willing to tiptoe around him despite him not even being a paid staff member. What all does he have access to?

              1. John*

                He was the collections manager. Sounds to me that, given that Steve gave up his salary to help with the budget, they feel indebted.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      OP, this is not how healthy boards and healthy organizations function. There has to be more going on here than you know about.
      I have been on a couple small local boards now. As a board member, if I ever saw this, I would work to fix it OR get off the board. It is nothing I would want my good name associated with.

  13. FormerMusemDevelopmentStaff*

    This entire situation just gives me the heebie-jeebies.
    Please heed the excellent advice, esp. about the lawyer. Volunteers with best intentions step in where there’s a vacuum and it can be hard to demote them. I once had to wrest control of a museum website from a volunteer who had the site’s server in his basement.
    He wanted to continue making decisions about website content … NOT cool.
    It was difficult and he was emotionally invested, but it was FAR easier than this situation and I had the support of the Director and my boss. Best move I ever made. Oh yeah … we lost the volunteer as a volunteer, which was sad.

  14. super anon*

    “But there’s a lot still up in the air, including the fact that he’s still holding a lot of our collections at his home. He has decided to remove us from his will and is instead donating his estate to the local university.”

    Is this line implying that he plans to donate the museum’s own collections to the local university rather than give them back? If that’s the case, is he even allowed to do that? I would imagine that just because you have it in your home, doesn’t mean it straight up belongs to you does it? And if that is the case, the musuem should really be doing everything it can to get those collections back from him while he’s still living.

    1. lowercase holly*

      ugh. it depends on how they were acquired. if this place creates donor deeds of gift when they get collections, it would show that the museum owns the collections. but maybe they don’t do this??

      super unethical to allow any sort of collection already acquired to remain at an employee’s house. but are the collections not officially acquired and only on their way to the museum via Steve? ugh, ugh, ugh.

      at any rate, maybe the museum should alert the donors that Steve never sent them the collections. donors get funny when their stuff doesn’t go where they thought it was going.

      1. lowercase holly*

        “We are in the middle of a Museum Assessment Program assessment, with a reviewer visiting in March. I am looking forward to talking to her about the issues with the board and Steve, and seeing another perspective on it all.”

        ooh, i figure this is with AAM? i am also interested in what the reviewer says!! i hope we get an update to the update! guidelines, ho!

    2. Raine*

      My first thought too. This isn’t going to be over when he leaves on his own. He’s going to be haunting them for years from beyond the grave.

  15. AW*

    Alison was right to worry about Jean quitting with the original letter but now I’m thinking the OP ought to quit.

    1. John*

      I agree. Executive Directors have tough jobs and such a weak and wrong-headed board must be terrible to deal with.

      Our ED told us that in a survey of EDs, 95% said they would never take another ED role. Having X number of bosses [X = number of board members] being a big part of it.

  16. Badly Behaving Boards are Bummers*

    I used to be a volunteer for an all-volunteer organization. Let’s say they made teapots. The org was made of different groups: Those that sold the teapots, those that did teapot customer service, those who picked out teapot designs, and those who built the teapots. Unfortunately, the board of directors were always people who loved tea and teapots but had no idea how they were made. Worse, if you called them on that they would say things like, “Of course we know how to make teapots. We drink tea every day!”

    When I joined the teapot making group one of the other volunteers was always praised for the higher than average amount of teapots he made. I had specific duties so I didn’t really pay attention to what he was doing until the day the teapot making manager stepped down and I was appointed to be the new one. When I started looking into what the whole group did I discovered that the one teapot maker was doing so much because he didn’t follow any of the rules – he would use whatever materials were easiest, ignored requests in orders, or would make a bunch of random teapots that were not on order because he “felt like it,” often with materials meant for specific orders. In short, he was getting a lot done, but he was doing what he wanted, not what needed to be done.

    When I asked him work with me, he agreed. Then he promptly went back to doing what he wanted. When I talked to him again, he went to the board and complained that I was harassing him!

    The board told me I was a bad manager, and that I had to stop ‘harassing’ the teapot maker. They told me that because he got so much done they would rather lose me than him. When I pointed out that he was causing more harm than good, with specifics (ex. you shouldn’t mix ceramic and metal in this one teapot design or it will break, yet he kept making them that way), they asked him for comment. He replied with a bunch of online links to thing that he said “proved” he was right and I was wrong – but the board was so lacking in technical knowledge they were unable to understand the links, which all showed that I was correct! They insisted that he “proved” he was correct and that I had to leave him alone.

    I quit. Last I heard he’s still there, celebrated for how many teapots he makes despite the fact that their orders are consistently running behind. The board publicly claims that they can’t figure out why they’re always back-ordered.

    1. Melissa*

      Aw, when I began this story I wanted it to have a happy ending. And I guess it sort of did for you in that you got out of there, but the resolution still sucks.

  17. Mochafrap512*

    I like the theft idea because it is theft. I would get the police l, get a moving truck along with a group of people, show up and get all of it. Also, who’s to say he doesn’t have a storage unit or a hidden place in his house where he is keeping some of the collections the museum doesn’t realize he has?

  18. Mochafrap512*

    Museums have security, his house is no way as secure as a museum. His house could be burglarized, there could be a fire, etc. ….and yes I realize a fire can happen at a museum too.

    1. Natalie*

      The museum probably has better fire suppression since it’s a public place – at a minimum the building would be fully sprinklered and the fire alarm monitored by a central station.

      1. Melissa*

        And if the museum is burglarized they probably have an insurance policy that covers that. If Steve’s house is burglarized, will the museum’s insurance company want to cover the costs for improperly secured and stored museum artifacts? Unlikely. And does Steve have enough homeowner’s insurance in the case of a fire to cover the costs of those museum artifacts? Also unlikely!

        1. Mochafrap512*

          Plus, donors think their items are in the museum. Id be livid if I found out they were in some yahoo’s home. They would be upset about the lack of security and insurance coverage.

  19. Artemesia*

    So he has a bunch of the museum’s stuff in his basement and has cut them out of the will; just how do they think they will re-capture this material from the estate when he dies? It really serves this board right — the problems they will have to deal with by and by. The OP really needs if at all possible to find a new job. If there are no good options or she is not mobile — well then, time to write a roman a clef — there is some comedy gold here.

  20. Melissa*

    Most nonprofits and charitable organizations have at least one person in the development office whose specialty is basically sweet-talking donors and beneficiaries. Is there no one who has this role at this museum, someone who can make Steve feel special and valued while getting him to transition his role and collections back to the museum?

    Steve doesn’t really sound like a guy who really loves and cares for the museum; he just sounds like a manipulative guy who’s using his stature to bully the museum into doing things the way he wants them to do them, and is (perhaps intentionally) holding some of their collections at home to enforce this.

    But at least Jean is happier, yay!

  21. Clerica*

    I’m probably latching onto the least of the concerns here, but it really makes me sad to think that Steve is hoarding museum pieces and making deals without the museum knowing. The whole point of a museum is so everyone gets to enjoy beautiful and interesting things instead of collectors hoarding them in locked windowless rooms. I’m sure he’s not hiding a lost Rembrandt at home, but whatever it is is something that someone treasured and gave or sold to the museum hoping that anyone could come see it and appreciate it as much as they did. And Steve is hoarding a bunch of them as part of a power play.

    1. Melissa*

      No, I think that is actually a serious concern – because if and when it comes out, it could damage donor relations FAR more than cutting Steve would. Most donors who really care about an organization would understand if the person they formerly had relations with had to leave and they had to establish a new relationship with a new collections manager. AS someone pointed out earlier, anyone who left over that is probably either looking for an excuse to leave or has already left anyway, given that Steve is disgruntled enough that the museum is out of the will.

      I think far fewer would understand if the museum had to explain that their precious family heirloom or artifact was lost because they allowed Steve to hoard them in his home for years, and Steve’s house was burned in a fire or Steve won a lawsuit and managed to bequeath them to a university, who then sold them.

    1. Bea W*

      Yes! If you have storage issues that are the reason volunteers are keeping things at their homes, look into renting storage space.

  22. Another ED*

    I think most EDs have a story about rogue volunteers, especially those who helped found the organization. Social relationships play a big role in why Board members and volunteers contribute to nonprofit organizations–it can be very difficult for Board members to take negative action against one another or against volunteers that they have worked with for many years–especially if they remember when the now rogue volunteer was a valued contributor. I’ve experienced the damage that a rogue volunteer Board member can do to an organization (sudden threats to yank critical funding, complaints from elected political officials at the state government level, failed projects, and a lot of wasted time are a good summary). What solved the problem in our case was strong leadership–from one motivated Board member and two other volunteers who now serve on my Board. In this case, it helped the volunteer agree to resign when he was able to hear that others were interested in replacing that volunteer and needed him to step aside so that they could begin contributing to the organization. If the current Board lacks the leadership qualities needed, start grooming some new potential recruits and pave the way for some positive Board transitions. The current Board members might appreciate a new recruit who is willing to work alongside the ED to make some tough changes to volunteer recruitment and retention.

  23. mirror*

    I’ve never worked for a non-profit and know little about how they function, but…shouldn’t OP be worried about their own employment? It sounds like things are going downhill fast, and with how cowardly, stupidly, and passive-aggressively the board is behaving, I wouldn’t be surprised if something catastrophic happens (like Steve’s house burning down), news spreads like fire to the donors, and they all come angrily knocking on the board’s door…who then all blame you for being a bad ED. If they are weak enough to succumb to Steve, I can’t imagine they will be any stronger to stand up to the donors.

  24. MK*

    OP, these collections that Steve has at his house, they are actually museum property, right? Not part of his estate that he had loaned to the museum and promised to leave it then in his will?

  25. Bea W*

    I was on the board in a similar situation. We had to let a couple of rogue volunteers go. We tried for years to work with them and/or hope they’d move on, and it was the hardest decision we had to make. There was quite a bit of drama from them after the fact, including one who responded that she “did not accept” her dismissal and unsuccessfully attempted to mobilize the rest of the member and volunteer base to oust the current board and allow her to take over. We ended up much better off with these people gone, and their behavior post severing ties is all the proof I needed to know we did the right thing. One did have records at her home which she never returned. Again, more confirmation we did the right thing. No regrets.

  26. Kristine*

    Archivist/museum accreditation consultant here. When you go through the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) assessment, you will discover that you need to do these things:
    1) interview your volunteers and perhaps consider a BCA check;
    2) NEVER allow volunteers, or anyone else, to remove any artifacts, records, or documents from the museum – it simply is not done;
    3) always have your volunteers work under supervision;
    4) do not allow volunteers or unpaid “interns” to deal with donor relations; you will regret it.
    You need a Volunteer Services Coordinator, and not a board, to deal with the intake and training of volunteers in the future, and the board needs to back up this person’s authority. Make sure that the structure and intake process is in place before you take on any more volunteers.
    Many nonprofits also require at least a 6-month “cooling off” period before a former employee becomes a volunteer; others forbid it.

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