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Thursday, October 02, 2014

The GLCCB's Mounting Challenges

The resignation of interim executive director Kelly Neel from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland (GLCCB) further brings to light the mounting challenges facing the 35 year-old institution.  In a candid email sent to 180 friends and colleagues, Neel, who served in that capacity for about five months following the resignation of her predecessor Matt Thorn, wrote, “It has been a tumultuous time for the organization, which has been in transition for quite some time now. While I believe that we have navigated the past year to the best of our abilities, I no longer feel that my values and my vision align with those of our leadership.”
Kelly Neel at 2014 Baltimore Pride
Prior to the resignation, a search for a permanent executive director was underway.  Neel saw the handwriting on the wall: she was not going to win the job through a competitive process.  Neel told me that she did not receive support from the board of directors; there was a decided lack of communication between the board and her; she did not feel valued or respected; and there was a “disconnect” regarding her vision on financial strategies and event planning.
A member of the board acknowledged she was not likely to be offered the permanent position though she would have been considered along with other candidates.  For their part, the board was dissatisfied with her handling of the job, managing and presenting budgets, and the manner in which she interacted with board members. 

Without getting into the he-said, she-said details, one thing is clear: they didn’t get along, and she resigned on her own terms without having to go through the process of inevitably losing out to another candidate.  Cohesion is critical in any organization, and perhaps a better effort could have been undertaken by both sides to improve the relationship.
To be clear, Neel was just one person given formidable tasks to manage the Center. As she had previously pointed out in an open letter, “it takes a village.” All the essential operations and programs of the GLCCB should not be the responsibility of one person.  The board should not simply supervise the executive director but to also assume an “all hands on deck” posture to actively help out as well.  That has not happened.  

To the public (and the executive director is indeed the public face of the Center) Neel demonstrated a calm temperament and demeanor during the contentious town hall meeting at the Waxter Center in July.  She was among those in the cross-hairs during that event, handling the barbs with professionalism, class and respect.  She pledged and followed through on the prevailing theme of establishing transparency by posting minutes of previous board meetings (to the extent that they were available), financial reports, and board applications (since removed) to the GLCCB’s website.  She also arranged for open board meetings of which two have taken place.
As Neel pointed out, she functioned in an environment that she termed as “tumultuous,” – a generous characterization.  She assumed the post of interim executive director just a couple of months before Pride whereby decisions had already been made to shift the location.  Her task was to implement those decisions in a tight timeframe, and despite some cracks in the walls, she and her staff of volunteers pulled off the huge event quite well. 

Prior to Neel’s appointment, the GLCCB’s move to new digs at the Waxter Center last winter did not go over well.  The new venue was and still is not physically and cosmetically ready for prime time depriving the Center from holding a welcoming open house to help reset their image. And the sale of the previous building as well as the move itself was controversial because of the lack of transparency and community input.  
During the town hall and since, Neel issued a public warning that the Center needs the community to survive.  The financial picture for the GLCCB looks dismal with mounting debt and a lack of a reliable income stream to sustain a minimum of $10,000 per month for operations and personnel.  This doesn’t even include program-related expenses.

Neel rightly acknowledged there is a growing apathy among the LGBT communities towards the Center, which would take an enormous effort to reverse. Two months ago I outlined some common-sense suggestions to right the ship.  If followed, there is a chance the Center could build a brand that will provide a rationale for its existence and the donations would possibly follow.
The key to success is community buy-in.  The GLCCB must express a vision that it rightly has a place in Baltimore and whose mission is not centered on Pride alone.  It needs to extend their hands to all communities and allow representatives to help formulate and act on the Center’s mission. It needs a diverse board with a broad range of experiences that would be willing to roll up their sleeves and work.  The Center should continue what Neel was beginning to accomplish by holding small, inexpensive and affordable events to raise money and to show more visibility and relevancy.

Instability at the top (and that includes the revolving door on the board) is not the way to maintain rapport and business relationships with other entities nor will it help bolster confidence in an organization that is in need of it. Kelly Neel was not the problem and a search for a permanent executive director could have waited.
The focus should be on developing a clear strategy to deal with the financial crisis and fast.  Perhaps most importantly, however, the communities must feel there is a reason to keep the GLCCB going.

These are challenges, to be sure, but if not met, the doors could shut down for good.

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