Folding Chair

Five years ago Joel Sisson's blend of art, social work, and lawn furniture was the talk of the town. Now the founder of the Green Chair Project is sitting on a pile of dreams and unpaid bills.

The project moved into the new space in April '97, and the funders seemed duly impressed. "In early 1997, Northwest Area Foundation gave 20 grand, the McKnight Foundation gave 30, and the Dayton Hudson Foundation gave another five or 10," recalls Tripp Somerville, senior program officer at the Northwest Area Foundation and a longtime booster of the project. "[Those were] serious investments to move the Green Chair Project from a seasonal, almost fly-by-night operation that had a tremendous amount of potential to one that could be sustained year-round."

Building a year-round operation also involved the addition of several new layers of administration, including a transitional advisory board that would eventually become the nonprofit board required for 501(c)/3 nonprofit tax designation. But Sisson and the board soon started butting heads. The advisers wanted to focus on basic business first: Public-art projects would have to wait.

"This is where I failed," Sisson grimaces. "I think that sometimes people look at me as some wacked-out longhair with grandiose ideas and no vision of pulling them off. But it seems like, over the years, we've been able to do chairs for sale and public art. I didn't think that we had to re-prove to the board that we could still do both things at the same time."

Becker, who served on the transitional board, disagrees, saying the team did see the value in public art. But, he points out, a board is legally and financially responsible for an organization, so members must consider the bottom line. Sisson, he says, was coming face-to-face with "the ball-and-chain administrative aspect of nonprofits. You must meet regularly, communications is a big part of it, and the care, maintenance, feeding of a board is a big thing. It can drain energy away from project stuff."

Cuthbert adds that administrative tasks are a necessary evil, especially for an ambitious organization. "When you think real big, there are going to be more demands, because you're asking for bigger investments from people. If you up people's level of investment, you're going to up the level of inquiry into what you're doing. It requires some due diligence. People want to know what the money that they've spent is going to."

 

Sisson leans back in his chair and looks at the ceiling. He's clearly uncomfortable talking about this phase in his project's life. By late 1997, he explains haltingly, it had become obvious that he could not and did not want to handle the project's growing administrative load. So the Project hired Cynthia Williams as operations director. Advisory-board member Somerville, who is married to Williams, warned of a conflict of interest. But Sisson says he "liked her energy."

The relationship soon deteriorated. Williams seemed to agree with the board more than Sisson or assistant director Hoyt did. "I always wanted to keep us working on multiple fronts," Sisson recalls, "and both Tripp and Cynthia wanted us to concentrate on narrowing down the projects and developing the organization itself. Cynthia was here setting up systems, but the systems weren't being set up for public art; they were being set up for accounting, chairs and orders, production. They wanted a chair-making factory."

Actually, says Becker, it was Sisson who kept getting embroiled in administrative details: Building the organization was "a lot about letting go. [But] Joel would think, 'How can I be responsible if this computer program goes through and it's not right for me?' If it didn't feel right for Joel, it would eat at him."

John Paul, a partner with the Dallas-based consulting group Association Works, has seen the same dynamic play out in nonprofits across the U.S. "It's called Founder's Syndrome," he says. "The founder is still wanting to be in charge, when in fact the organization is now bigger than even the founder imagined it. The board has a fiduciary role to govern, so typically the founder loses, but the organization is so wrapped up in that personality that it makes the fight very difficult." In one very public example, Paul notes, Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candy Lightner was ousted in 1985 by her board, which argued that the organization had become too big for her to run.

The Green Chair board never discussed removing or replacing Sisson. But he removed himself for part of each year in a planned sabbatical. "He left at end of December and came back beginning of April," remembers Williams. "It was right during a crucial part of grant period--I was brought on board and then he left. It was difficult. He called in on occasion, but did nothing that advanced the project in absentia. He was living in a shed somewhere without a phone."

Sisson doesn't flinch at the mention of his winter trips. He explains that they were necessary because of a back condition that has caused his spinal disks to deteriorate and required two steel rods to be implanted in his back in the mid-1980s. Sisson can't bend from the waist up and says cold weather puts him in constant pain; he skipped his journey to warmer climes for the first time this year, he says, because of his project's dire situation.

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