update: our museum volunteer is out of control

Remember the letter-writer in 2014 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)? She wrote in with an update later that year and again in 2015. Here’s the latest update.

I’m still here at the organization. I’m extremely dedicated to turning this organization around, and it’s slow going but I feel like we’ll get there.

The rogue volunteer, Steve, has pulled back quite a bit from the organization. The collections objects are still at his house, for now. We recently updated our strategic plan, and one of the initiatives is to get everything out of his house in the next year. We found a temporary storage location that we can use for free for a few months this summer, and our collections manager will be moving everything from Steve’s house, using volunteers to help inventory the objects and choose items for deaccession, and then attempting to reorganize our other storage units to fit what we’re keeping.

We have had a large decrease in the number of people donating money over the past few years, and we’re starting to investigate now and see if it could be because of Steve badmouthing us. I think that’s likely the case, as he was our main donor-relations person before all of this. Steve and three other former staff members meet weekly for lunch to complain about the current staff and the way we’re taking the organization. It’s a pretty toxic situation overall. Hopefully we can find new donors and come out of this without too many scars from Steve.

{ 74 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I’d make sure you get all of the museum’s belongings out of Steve’s house before you investigate too much into whether or not he’s bad mouthing you. If he finds out, he could try to retaliate somehow.

    1. AMG*

      Yeah, I would move pretty aggressively on that. How unfortunate that one person can do so much damage to an organization. I understand wanting to treat Steve gently for the sake of community relations, but maybe Steve is just too much of a rogue to even do that. In any case, I hope it all goes well for you.

      1. Grits McGee*

        If anything, I hope the message finally gets across to the board that it’s incredibly risky to put so many eggs into one (Steve-shaped) basket.

        1. Anonymoose*

          Exactly. And part of that strategic plan should be overhauling the volunteer recruitment and management.

    2. SophieChotek*

      +1. This is such an aggravating and sad situation — this guy is on such a power-trip, it seems like and doesn’t see how he’s actively harming an organization he says he loves. Sounds like he wants to have his own mini-private museum.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        He doesn’t love the organization, he loves the feeling of being The Dude of the organization.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Seriously—I am so aggravated/frustrated on OP’s behalf. It’s been years of this nonsense, and this guy is just being a massive PITA who’s actively harming the organization. I’m livid that the Board isn’t taking action to protect the museum, but rather, keeps trying to appease an adult who insists on behaving like a spoiled child.

    3. Antilles*

      Yep. It would be way too easy for the collection in Steve’s house to accidentally get ‘lost’ or ‘mixed in with other things’ or even something as simple as he stops answering the door. Legally you could sue him to get access to your property, but that’s a long and costly process.

  2. CAinUK*

    No offense OP, but it seems like this is taking far too long. Steve is likely badmouthing you, which is directly impacting your donor base, and the object are STILL in his house? And there is a plan but it only aims to get the objects out in a YEAR?

    And you have former employees (who were left, or fired?) also badmouthing the new direction of the org? I get that all of this might just be Steve and a toxic situation, but it sounds like there also may be some justified frustration beyond just Steve. It may be worth taking an objective look at whether these new changes are legitimately helping the org…

    1. MuseumChick*

      Eh, museums are notoriously slow at getting things like this done. Especially if it’s a smaller museum and Steve is friends with board members. I’ve run into similar issues, a problem volunteer has many friends on the board and thus is extremely protected from every getting in trouble.

      1. GigglyPuff*

        This. I work in a related field and things can take a long time that don’t seem like they should. Especially if you’re trying to create new policies that have never been written (researching, writing, approval, etc.). And it’s entirely possible the museums been doing all this in other areas also. Based on what I’ve seen where I work, policies and procedures that are lacking are pretty universal and when you want to clean them up, you really need to do it across the board. Meaning this is probably just the worst case problem but not the only one the museum is trying to fix.

      2. Museum Educator*

        Ditto this. We have a docent like that, he’s terrible but he’s good friends with one of the curators (who is also fairly terrible) and several of the board members. He’s been around for years and donates just enough money that the board fights it if the issue of getting rid of him comes up.

        1. MuseumChick*

          Ah yes, it’s amazing what people can get away with in a museum if they give enough money. This issues can also be the result of people trying to be kind hearted. I worked a place where there was an older woman with a lot of health problems. Here whole world was volunteering and her dog. The problem was she was volunteering in a area that needed a complete over-haul. She wasn’t getting any thing done and was actually making certain issues slightly worse. She was also complete resistant to changing how she did things. Our director and board wouldn’t do anything about because they didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

          1. Grits McGee*

            I worked at a museum where a one of the volunteers was a woman in her 90’s who been there since almost before anyone could remember. She was meant to orient visitors but couldn’t hear, so another volunteer had to sit with her to yell the visitors’ questions into her ear. The volunteer coordinators felt awful when they finally got rid of the service desk she used to staff, but this had been the state of affairs for probably close to a decade.

            1. Kitkat*

              I actually just went to a museum with a terrible volunteer! He would follow the visitors around and tell very long winded stories on tangential topics, event to people (like me) trying to give very clear cues that we wanted to be left alone. I could tell from the way the other volunteers were interacting that they knew this was a problem but didn’t know what to do about it.

              It was awkward.

              1. Maria S*

                I would complain. The more complaints they get, the more reason (or excuse, or both) to get rid of him.

              2. MuseumChick*

                Please, please, please call the museum directly and let them know you experience. Problems like this never change unless the public complains. I promise you the other volunteers and most of the staff will be so grateful that someone complained.

    2. ScarletInTheLibrary*

      Ditto what has alread been said regarding getting all the ducks in a row. Especially if the board has to approve and they drag their feet or don’t meet that often.

      I think a huge issue is that Steve can string them along for as long as he wants. They can’t really get into his house without him, so they are at the mercy of his whims. The more volunteers there to inventory and box items, the better. There may be one chance to get anything out of his house.

    3. Minister of Snark*

      I’m having a really hard time grasping why the museum’s property is still in Steve’s house.

      1. MuseumChick*

        Right? Lol, what I really like about the article itself is that it treats volunteers like any other management issues. Set expectation, coach, give warnings, give final warning, fire.

        1. Antilles*

          I liked that too. It’s definitely a good angle to think of things.
          Obviously, you can’t hold your volunteers to exactly the same standards as your paid staff because they *are* donating their time and probably doing something you couldn’t actually afford to pay someone to do. But having looser standards does not mean you have zero standards – if a volunteer can’t be relied on to meet some basic level of competence/politeness/timeliness/etc, then he might as well not exist. In fact, in many cases, having a terrible volunteer is actually worse than having no volunteer.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I’m always surprised when people are surprised by being fired, after they’ve been counseled (three times, in the case of the article). Like, do they thing you’re doing it for fun?

  3. Bend & Snap*

    a year from now to take back the organization’s property? 4 years from the original letter? And Steve is probably damaging the organization and is still not out on his ass?

    I can’t.

  4. TorontoITManager*

    I have been lurking a long time and have only commented once before, but have to comment here because this is insane. How mired in bureaucracy are you that you can’t deal with this in almost three YEARS? There must be horrible management in place. Hopefully the toxicity goes away soon. Good luck!

  5. animaniactoo*

    Reading through all the updates, I think what I got out of it is this:

    In a situation like this, you can’t accept the “Don’t manage Steve” mandate. That’s the piece you have to argue back on, and say “I need to be able to do this in order to manage the organization. I can’t have such a major piece completely out of my control and be effective at my job. I promise you that I will handle Steve as sensitively as possible and with respect, but I need him to be reporting to me as the ED, and I need to be able to address things with him directly when there are issues.”

    Because in all honesty, when the board told OP not to manage Steve, they essentially told Steve he didn’t need to respect the person who was in charge of the day-to-day running of the organization he was working at. Or pretty much anyone else who was there. In the end, the donor relationships they wanted to preserve seem to have been burned any way, because Steve is/was enough of a contrarian to be upset by the changes no matter how they happened. But I suspect that Steve might have had more respect for a day-to-day person who was talking to him and bringing him into the “new” organization and working with him regularly on that, rather than sporadically as issues became “bad enough” to warrant the board talking to him… again. Maybe not, but it seems like a better shot than accepting the loose cannon imo.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Amen. This guy is seriously out of control, and the “benign” approach to management is simply unacceptable. The Board needs to figure out what they prefer—a toxic “volunteer” who’s taking actions to actively harm the organization, or an ED trying to recover and protect it. From a legal standpoint, they have a duty to look out for the museum, not for Steve, and they’re not fulfilling that duty.

      1. animaniactoo*

        The thing is they believed they *were* looking out for the museum by not upsetting a person who had a major stranglehold on their financial status through his donor relationships, etc. What they failed to appreciate is that if said person was going to be upset by having to report to the new E.D. and work with them, there was always a high risk that it would go badly and they sacrificed the one opportunity to make it work out better for the museum and Steve. With a clear-cut understanding of who was now in charge and making final decisions such that Steve might have had more willingness to play within the “new” rules if they *really* applied to him too. If I was Steve, I might be feeling somewhat uncomfortable that the new ED wasn’t really all that in charge and it might cause me to double-down on trying to make sure the museum was still getting the service it needed too. I’ll admit it, there are circumstances under which I could turn into a loose cannon, and something like that would be one of them.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          If they had managed him all along, he wouldn’t have had a stranglehold on them. And if Steve really had doubts, acting out rather than taking his concerns to the board/governing body was absolutely the wrong response.

          I work for a nonprofit that is not a museum but shares some vaguely-similar traits. Our previous director wasn’t malevolent but she also wasn’t good at outreach, so she was, also, pretty much our only door to donors, and she wasn’t very good at it. We used to spend hours twice a year stuffing envelopes with solicitation letters, which I’m sure was a huge waste of time and funds. When she finally retired, the new guy started looking for grants on top of keeping an eye out for donors.

  6. Sketchee*

    There are more problems than this one person if it’s been this many years. I know many issues in life require patience. You’re way more patient than I would be.

  7. Aphrodite*

    I am amazed at the time and effort that is being put in to solve this problem. Admittedly, it is a large, sensitive and potentially destructive problem but still. OP, you and the board are unfortunately encouraging this problem and seeing the consequences (decreased donations) of the “inertia plan.” Your museum may end up imploding anyway; you’ve just had it on life support for the last several years and Steve is the one toying with the plug.

    I say rip the plug out of the wall yourself. And gulp. Because whatever happens, happens–but at least it will happen fast. (And who knows, Steve may fold when faced with seeing something he cares about collapse immediately.)

      1. fposte*

        She’s said she’d only be willing to relocate her family for a perfect job, and there’s one she’s hoping for coming open soon. So hopefully that will give her an out.

    1. Pup Seal*

      Yeah, I think there’s a point where there’s nothing you can do to save an organization/company and it’s best to rip the plug out. I work for a non-profit that has been in survival mode for the past 2 years and it really should just fold. Sometimes the best option is to start anew.

  8. Jillociraptor*

    “We recently updated our strategic plan, and one of the initiatives is to get everything out of his house in the next year.”

    Wow. This really underscores what a bonkers situation this is. It sounds like you are taking purposeful action to try to get the museum back on track, OP. Good luck! The staff and community your museum serves definitely deserve better than Steve…

  9. fposte*

    This sounds like one of the small nonprofits where the board is treating the org like a pet. It sounds like you’ve decided the tradeoffs work for you right now, OP, and I hope that continues to be true.

  10. Aglaia761*

    I work for a non-profit which has been slowly transitioning from a more grass roots organization to a more corporate and professional organization. We’re in year 3 of a 5 year strategic plan. It’s not as simple as JUST DO IT! Each thing you change affects everything else. And change costs both time and money, which are often in short supply at non profits.

    1. Dzhymm, BfD*

      While that may be true to a certain extent, at the same time if the museum caught fire the proper response isn’t to devise a strategic plan to reduce the intensity of the flames by 30% over the next three years… you need to put the fire out NOW and deal with the aftermath. To me, one aspect of the Steve situation is on fire now, and the other is smoldering.

      The fire, of course, is the items that are stored at his house. He basically is able to hold the museum hostage over this, and the first order of business would be to get them out NOW. Figure out creative options for storage space. After all, if the museum caught fire tonight, tomorrow morning you’ll need to find storage for the remainder of the collection while you make repairs. Pretend that’s what’s happening RIGHT NOW and do it.

      The smoldering ember is his (possible) effect on the donor community. You’re going to have to deal witht that eventually, but even that is not subject to strategic planning. You need to deal with it directly and decisively before it does erupt in flames…

      1. Artemesia*

        I hope the OP has sat down with major donors for coffee or lunch and explored their interests and commitment and excitement about the organization, conveyed her own passion for it and asked their advice about future directions. Ignore Steve’s relationship with donors. Maybe some will refuse to meet or interact with the ED, but some probably will be flattered.

        The fire analogy was just right; this should have been dealt with quickly and authority asserted on day 1. There might have been a positive outcome and if not, a far less negative one than this clownshow. I can’t imagine a much weaker position than ‘our strategic plan is to think about getting our stuff back, maybe’ unless it is ‘we want to hire you to be ED but you aren’t allowed to manage a toxic volunteer.

    2. MuseumChick*

      Aglaia, I agree. I’ve worked in museums for years. It is never as simple as “Just do it.” and that can be hard for people from For-Profits to understand.

    3. OP*

      Thanks so much for posting this. Nothing is as simple as “just do it!” We are “just doing it,” but it takes time. Lots of pieces to put into place ahead of time, not to mention we are short staffed (like many non-profits) and we have a million other things on our plates (like many non-profits).

      I’m doing the best I can here to get us out of this situation, but it does take time and money, and both are definitely in short supply. Getting it into the strategic plan was a huge step for us, because before that, most of the board didn’t even believe having the collections at his house was a pressing problem.

      We’re moving the objects in April when our temporary processing space opens up. We have the date set, truck rented, he’s been alerted, etc.

      1. MuseumChick*

        Good luck OP! Hopefully everything does well, and nothing is missing when you finally get the stuff back.

      2. Lady Ariel Ponyweather*

        Thank you for explaining. I had no idea it would be so difficult to deal with a problem like this. Good luck, looking forward to an update where he’s gone for good and you are free!

      3. Important Moi*

        I too have been following your saga at the museum. It’s a world I know nothing about. I wish you success in getting rid of Steve.

        I also know what it’s like for others on the outside to wonder why things on the inside aren’t moving faster. :(

  11. (another) b*

    Removed because off-topic — sorry! (I’m enforcing the rules rigorously right now because I’m trying to do a bit of a re-set on the commenting section.)

  12. phedre*

    We lost some donors when our toxic former Director of Development didn’t get selected to be Executive Director (thankfully senior leadership all promised the board they would quit on the spot if she was hired, and they hired an absolutely amazing woman instead). She badmouthed us to everyone she could, and yes, we lost donors. But 5 years later, we’re doing much better! It takes time – we’re transitioning from a very grassroots organization to a much more professional organization while trying to grow individual giving. There are ups and downs, but ultimately it’s worth it.

    It can take a long time to build a strong nonprofit, but stay the course. You may temporarily lose some donors because of him, but in the long run your organization will be much better off. It takes time, but you will get there!

  13. Another museum person*

    Reading the update from 2015, I have to say that I’m shocked that the MAP reviewer saw the collections in Steve’s basement and said it was okay! A word from a national expert reviewer against keeping public collections in a private individual’s house could really have helped convince your board. That reviewer really neglected an important place they could have had an impact on your organization.

    1. Yet Another Museum Person*

      I literally stop and think about that regularly, and marvel at it. I cannot imagine what the MAP reviewer was thinking, and am stunned that they allowed it. Somehow this is the bit of this story that really sticks with me. Crazy volunteer/unhelpful Board/etc. is practically de rigeur for the museum world but this is a pretty startling ethical issue.

      1. Editor*

        After the museum’s items are finally removed from Steve’s “care” can the museum get some kind of audit or certification that endorses its handling of its collection and its management? Something like that could be used to counteract the possible bad-mouthing.

        Receiving such an endorsement could be an excuse for a direct mail campaign or some other outreach. Maybe some new donors could be found with that in hand.

        1. Another museum person*

          Not really–they would just be finally hitting basic collections standards.

  14. GreyjoyGardens*

    Thanks for the update, OP! I hope you can soon come back with a final update called “The Last of Steve!” What a pain he is. I also hope that he hasn’t done too much damage to your organization and that you can recover from it.

    I can see where a particular volunteer might go rogue – in a field that relies heavily on volunteers, and where volunteer expertise and money are important, volunteers can hold a lot of power. And you don’t have the carrot and stick of “We pay your salary and benefits!” Yes, you can fire a volunteer, you can give him a poor reference or even warn other organizations about him, just as you can a salaried employee, but it’s so much harder and there isn’t always a clear procedure to follow.

    I wish you all the luck! I love museums, and I always enjoy visiting small, quirky, local ones! There are some real gems out there.

  15. Adam*

    Wow. Amazed this is still going. I know doing these things legitimately takes time and careful planning, but at some point I’d probably fantasize about putting on raiding gear and storming Steve’s house just for catharsis.

  16. The OG Anonsie*

    Wow I was just thinking about ol Steve yesterday, and here he is again. Still being STEVE.

  17. Jean who seeks to be Ingenious (or perhaps to write Crime Fiction)*

    Am I being too pessimistic to consider ways to ensure that none of the items stored at Steve’s house also go rogue? Given his past behavior, I am suspicious that Steve will attempt to undercut the Moving Day arrangements. It might be helpful for the ED (OP) and her allies to consider strategic ways to involve the museum’s legal counsel before and during Moving Day. This is a nice way of saying that you may need someone to bare her metaphorical teeth and otherwise look menacing enough to convince Steve that This Time, The Museum Means Business.

    My overheated imagination recommends that the ED and the lawyer send Steve a letter stating the date and terms of Moving Day:
    –Museum will appear at 8:00 a.m. on X date to inventory and pack or deaccession all [insert specific number] Antique Teapots, all [insert number] Tea Cosies, and all [insert number] Tea Strainers, etc.
    –Museum will bring staff members A, B, C and Lawyer to do [describe their activities]
    –Steve’s participation will consist only of [describe his carefully limited activities]
    On the actual Moving Day, the lawyer is Conspicuously Present, just to remind Steve that the moving of museum property is Really Happening Even if He Doesn’t Agree. Maybe the lawyer should bring along some lawyer buddies, or whichever board members are also lawyers. Maybe the lawyer should also notify the local police and/or the MAP reviewer (local museum professional). In fact, maybe the lawyer’s letter should allude to the idea that if Steve seeks to retain custody of any museum property on or after Moving Day, the museum will consider such actions to be Theft and will react accordingly.

  18. Jean who seeks to be Ingenious (or perhaps to write Crime Fiction)*

    P.S. OP, I wish you and your allies all the luck in the world–and a very happy evening at the end of your intended Moving Day.

  19. Chaordic One*

    Several years ago we had problems with a rogue museum director who drove away volunteers and donors. She was eventually fired and the museum board ended up having to ask a court to issue a search warrant and search her home. Museum property was found in her house and she was arrested, charged with theft, tried, found guilty and convicted.

    She ended up paying a large fine and doing community service. The museum ended up losing donors, but they would have done so no matter how things turned out. At least the rogue director was eventually removed, but only after she had done a lot of damage.

  20. Anion*

    I hate to be That Girl, but I sincerely hope that Steve’s Will notes that the items in his basement do not belong to him but are museum property (and that his heirs are informed of this also). If he dies with all that stuff there, and no note about its ownership…*shudder*

  21. Tertia*

    Does the strategic plan say anything about messaging? Because that seems to have been abdicated completely to Steve. If you haven’t already, you might want to consider including some education on “Curating Collections in the 21st Century” in your next exhibition and/or whatever public outreach you do. And for heaven’s sake, be sure that you’re out in front on announcing any deaccessioning, ’cause that can get ugly fast.

    Also, if you end up adding permanent state-of-the-art storage space to your facility, you should totally consider naming the space in Steve’s honor.

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