Career Q&A: I think I've been blackballed

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Several years ago I worked for an agency that was funded by a fairly large organization. To make a long story short, I questioned a direction they were going in, and from that point I was put on the hot seat until I was finally released from my contract (I agreed to go because they would not continue funding the agency if I stayed). When I left, the exit package included a letter which stated that there would be no recrimination on anyone's part about my leaving. I went back to school and started looking for work again. Recently I encountered an issue during an interview when the situation of me leaving the agency was raised. I was basically told I had been “blackballed” by the funder. What do I do in this situation to explain without "bad mouthing" the funder in return? (To date, the agency still has not achieved the goals the funder wanted even with new director.)

This is a tough situation and one no one would envy. However, it is not uncommon and we have supported clients who, while they may not have been overtly badmouthed or ostracized by a funder, have left organizations under a cloud or with ill will on one side or the other.

First of all, it sounds like you are handling the situation well. You have moved on, upgraded your education and are obviously marketing yourself effectively enough to land interviews. Take pride in that and keep yourself focused on the future and your own career goals.

The nonprofit / NGO sector is a small world indeed, and you may want to assume that word about the conditions under which you left the agency has circulated to people you may work with in the future.

We imagine that this question in the interview would have been disconcerting. Maybe that was the intention of the interviewer. The point of the question could have been less about the specifics of the situation and more about seeing how you deal with curve-ball questions or handle being flustered. As part of your preparation for any interview, expect the unexpected and practice your reactions to unusual, inappropriate or hard-hitting questions.

It sounds like you did not use the question as an opportunity to explain (only) your side of the story, point out the funder’s flaws and the agency’s lack of progress since your departure. This is commendable and speaks to your professionalism, which should be the overriding goal in handling this type of question. Do not rise to the bait and vent your opinions about this donor!

It should be sufficient to respond with something along the lines of “There was a difference of opinion between the donor organization and myself regarding the direction of the agency, and I chose to move on and explore other opportunities.” If you are expressly told you have been “blackballed” by this donor, you could respond simply with “I’m sorry to hear that. I notice that your organization has a broad base of support from various government departments, private foundations and individual philanthropists…” and steer the discussion in a way that highlights the research you have done on the interviewer's organization and what you will bring to the position for which you are being considered.

Rehearse your responses to variations of questions about the situation so that you are comfortable and articulate speaking about it. Be comfortable with being silent or redirecting the conversation if interviewers look at you expectantly for specific information about your relationship with this donor.

You should expect questions about fundraising, working with various stakeholders, handling various ethical situations and dealing with conflict. You may also want to prepare answers to specific questions about how you will work with this funder (if it funds other organizations you may consider working with). In all cases, be positive and professional and use each question as an opportunity to showcase your depth of experience, what you have achieved and learned in past positions and, most importantly, how you will apply all this to the new position.

Even before the interview stage – when you first start researching an organization in the application process – give serious consideration to whether or not this is an organization for which you could work. If they are supported by the donor organization you questioned in your previous position, you need to be sure that 1) you are honestly comfortable in a moral, ethical and personal sense that you can work with them again, and 2) you have a strategy for overcoming the previous difficult working relationship and building a productive relationship in a new position.

Also consider what sort of things you need to know about an organization’s culture before you agree to work there. For example, you may want to research (through your networks, by reading online reports, or by asking questions at the interview) how the board supports its senior management team, what the organization’s strategic plan is and how it was developed, and the level of involvement of donors in the organization’s programming and planning.

Good luck and we wish you all the best in this next stage of your career!

Nancy Ingram and Christa McMillin are co-founders and partners at Foot in the Door Consulting which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Together, they have over 30 years of experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector. They can be reached through www.footinthedoorconsulting.com.

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