Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day.

In that spirit, I thought I would share one of my favorite stories of being an Executive Director.

The following story was first told to me by my friend and mentor John Durel. A check of the internet reveals it’s been around for awhile and proper attribution is probably impossible.

No matter, John gets the credit in my book.


The tale of the three envelopes...

A young man had just been hired as the new Executive Director of a nonprofit organization. As he entered his new office for the first time, he noticed a large envelope in the center of an otherwise bare desk top.

Curious, he opened the large envelope and found three smaller envelopes along with a note. It was written by the previous ED.

“Congratulations on your new position,” the note read. “I wish you much success!”

Then it continued. “My predecessor gave me three very sage pieces of advice when I was where you are--just beginning my journey as an ED. And now I want to pass those on to you.”

“Enclosed are three numbered envelopes. Whenever you find yourself facing an impossible problem, open one and follow the instructions inside. Be sure to use them in sequence.”

Well, as is usually the case, the first year went very smoothy. Staff, eager to impress, took every assignment and completed it with gusto. The board, thirsty for change, accepted every suggestion for operational effectiveness. Things were great during this “honeymoon” period.

The first envelope

One day the honeymoon was over.

The annual gala significantly underperformed budget expectations. When the final numbers were tabulated and it was time for the board report, the picture wasn’t pretty. Remembering the advice, the ED found the envelope marked “1” and gently opened it.

“Blame me, your predecessor.”

Our young friend did blame his predecessor. “The last guy organized the costs of the event in a very unusual way,” his story went. “I didn't fully understand it, and that's why expenses are so far over budget."

"Now that I’ve been through it one time--and I’ve got a better feel for what all is involved--it won’t happen again.”

All was forgiven and things went rolling along again, as smooth as before.

The second envelope

Under the ED’s direction, the organization introduced a bold new program. Board and staff alike were full of excitement. Our ED friend invested a great deal of time and resources into the venture, sure it would be a smashing success.

Unfortunately, registrations fell dramatically short of projections. What’s more, participants were brutally critical in post-program surveys. It was an unmitigated disaster.

With no place to hide, the ED found the second envelope and ripped it open. It read:

“Admit your mistake, beg for forgiveness, and assure everyone it will never happen again.”

Well, our friend did admit his mistake. And he was forgiven.

The third envelope

Another year went by with hardly any issue.

Then it came time to renew a major funding agreement with the big Foundation. “We’ve got nothing to worry about,” our executive assured anyone and everyone. “I speak regularly with the program officer. She loves what we’re doing and thinks the value is obvious.”

“A renewal of our grant is a sure thing,” he said.

He met with the program officer, who did in fact sing the praises of our executive’s organization.

“Now that you’ve established a successful model,” the program officer explained, “our board is changing course to focus on other important problems. With the success of your program, we feel it will be easy for you to find someone else to pick up the funding baton and run with it.”

The ED was crushed. Not only was this a major funding hit, but more importantly he had put his entire reputation on the line. He hurried back to his office, shut the door, and ripped open the third envelope in a panic.

The message said:

“Prepare three envelopes.”

What do you think?

Have you ever had a situation where you wish you had three envelopes?

I’d love to hear about it! Send me a message or hop over to the Nonprofit Wizards Facebook page!

Darren Macfee is the founder of the Nonprofit Wizards. He studies the habits and practices of wizards and then shares those with the world. He also strives to be a little better every day--as a husband, as a dad, and as a business professional.

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