By Ben |

Soon after I resigned from Twin Cities Free-Net in early 2001, I approached World Population Balance about working for them. I'd attended some of their talks and remembered my mother saying that she thought population stabilization was the most important issue facing the world, so I thought I could help make a difference. A few months earlier, I had received an inheritance and used part of it to pay for the publication of an elementary-school curriculum by Zero Population Growth (now Population Balance).

At that time the founder of the organization was still leading it as president and unpaid employee, and he had also "hired" an independently wealthy man to do some of the public speaking, also unpaid. The two of them came to my apartment to interview me and were favorably impressed; by the time they left they had agreed to hire me on an hourly basis to do public speaking and some office work. Anticipating that speaking would be a big part of the job, I got my hair cut short and bought a suit.

As it turned out, though, office work was essentially all of the job. Less than a month after I was hired, the volunteer who built and maintained the membership database got hit by a car while bicycling and died. I had never met him, but by reverse-engineering his database and pouring over the manual I learned to use FileMaker Pro. That experience led directly to my later using Microsoft Access to automate my work at the Friends of the Library.

The founder also had me take over editing the newsletter from him, though he had trouble letting it go. He went over every detail of my work until it was just the way he would have done it, down to the comma placements. Mine was the name on the byline, though, which meant that when we received an envelope addressed to the editor that turned out to be a fan letter from Pete Seeger, it went to me. That helped to assuage some of the erosion of my ego caused by the daily micromanagement.

Another project he had me work on was updating a book that we had been granted the rights to. Since its publication in 1996, all the facts and figures had gone out of date, and I was given the task of finding the new numbers and updating the citations. The process took so long that I had to revise it a second time, but he ultimately decided not to publish and used the grant money for other projects. He also had me write several other grants for things that he did not ultimately buy. I'm sure some of the money went to pay my salary.

One project that did get completed was a video, modeled after the classic World Population, but specifically about Minnesota population and resource depletion over time. I researched all the statistics, wrote the script with time points, hired two high-school students to read it and recorded them. A commercial video company did the animation to match the time points in the recording. Unbeknownst to me, the founder recorded himself introducing and summarizing the video and had the company add those clips. The first I knew that he had done it was when I watched my copy of the finished and published VHS tape.

All that research I was doing had to be organized somehow, and having learned how to build database-driven Web sites while at TCFN, I built one called that would allow anyone researching anything to save and organize their citations for later retrieval. It never caught on, and I shut it down a few years later, but in the meantime I found it useful for my work at WPB.

One of the sources I read in my research was a report by the UN Population Fund that clearly said that the most effective way to reduce birth rates is to educate women and girls -- not about population, just a general education. I felt that this was a positive, non-coercive solution we could present along with the gloom and doom to give people hope and an action they could take. The founder would have none of it: WPB's mission was strictly to educate people about the problem, not to talk about solutions. The more I advocated for a more positive message, the more reluctant he was to have me speak or write on behalf of the organization, because he didn't trust me to stay on-brand.

The organization's office was in a spare bedroom of the founder's house in Richfield, MN. Depending on which way the wind was blowing, we were directly on the flight path for MSP, and the sound of aircraft shook the house every few minutes. The house was also notable for its decor, which had not been updated since the 1970s and was replete with avocado/harvest gold, shag carpet, faux wood paneling, and wallpaper with absolutely enormous polka-dots. The din of airport traffic abruptly ceased for a week or two after 9/11, and I think its resumption thereafter may have contributed to his decision to rent an office space.

Right around that time, I got the idea to do a bicycle tour of the eastern US, and I pitched it to the founder as a speaking tour. I was frustrated that whenever a speaking engagement got booked in the Twin Cities, he or the other speaker would do it rather than let me have a turn, and I figured if I were away from the city I could do some speaking of my own and also help enlarge the membership base nationwide. He was initially onboard with the idea, but a few weeks later he balked and talked me down to a shorter tour of just Minnesota and Iowa. Unfortunately the summer timing of the trip meant that I couldn't speak at schools, only at media outlets, but I still did pretty well, and I faithfully stuck to the approved script.

When I returned from the trip, I submitted my expenses for reimbursement as we had agreed. He refused to pay. I appealed to the board of directors, but they said they couldn't intervene with management decisions. He ultimately paid for a few of the expenses but not my time or lodging or meals. I submitted my resignation.

Two years later when I was doing the longer bike tour I had originally envisioned, I got a call on my cell phone from the chair of the board. While I stood in a parking lot on the roadside, he told me that the board had had a strategic planning meeting, with a professional facilitator, to set a new mission and vision for the organization. The board had steered the conversation toward teaching positive, non-coercive solutions instead of just the problems. The founder had participated in the planning, but as soon as the facilitator left, he expressed his intention to disregard the new mission and continue doing things his way. Half the board resigned on the spot, and the chair was calling me to see if I would be interested in joining. I laughed and declined.

In hindsight, I learned a lot of useful skills on the job, but I learned more about what not to do in a nonprofit organization and warning signs to watch for.