Cultivating Change

Tom Spencer is the newly-hired CEO of a struggling Austin interfaith organization. With the organization “bleeding money,” is it time to close the doors or take a closer look at the organization’s purpose and brand?

Case Excerpt:

Tom Spencer wasn’t looking for a job. Busy with a career in public broadcasting and his award‐winning website, “Soul of the Garden,” Spencer paused when he saw the posting for an executive director position at the Austin Area Interreligious Ministries (AAIM). That day, in October 2007, “The seed was planted.”[1] While an untraditional candidate, the Board of AAIM seemed thrilled to have Spencer consider the position: with his stylish glasses, gray trimmed hair, and a choker necklace, Spencer had been the face of public broadcasting in Austin for over twenty years . Perhaps he could raise the visibility – and increase the viability – of the struggling organization. During the hiring process, one board member confided: “Tom, you are getting into a lot—a mess, to put it politely. But you are the man for the job. I know you are going to turn it around, and we are not going to let you down.”

Spencer accepted the job offer, complete with a new title: Chief Executive Officer. He would work closely with an existing employee who was elevated to that position following Spencer’s hiring. Spencer remembered his first week as an interfaith CEO in early 2008 as “baptism by fire.” While he knew the organization was in trouble, he soon realized that AAIM was “in dire straits financially.” He recalled, “I was shocked by the state of affairs.” Within the first week, he received an email from the bookkeeping service, firing AAIM as a client: the angry email implied wrongdoing. Spencer knew he would need to investigate. The next week, the COO asked for a meeting. AAIM didn’t have enough funds available to pay salaries. She asked, “Could we hold your check?” He agreed, but was overwhelmed: “I felt like I was falling down the mountainside. And I didn’t know what to grab onto.”

As his first month wore on, Spencer recognized that the organization faced not just a financial crisis, but that something was “culturally amiss.” The organization’s bylaws and unwieldy governance structure – which included three boards – were “basically photocopied” from an interfaith organization in the Midwest. Even the organization’s name was problematic, Spencer thought. He considered the name to be awkward, confusing, and perhaps unwelcoming. Spencer was often asked, “Are you a Christian organization?” He explained, “The model and structure, the mindset, was archaic.” Nowhere was this more evident to him than in the age of those participating in AAIM’s events: although Spencer was in his early fifties, he was often the youngest person in the room.

Spencer felt that he inherited an old model of interfaith organization that was no longer viable. He also inherited a predecessor’s computer, on which he found a trail of documents that indicated serious, repeated consideration of shutting AAIM down altogether. Spencer thought to himself, “You know what: I’m here. I wanted a challenge. Let’s just see what we can do. If I have to bail, I will; but let’s see if we can fix it.”

 

Discussion Questions

1. Tom Spencer takes the position knowing that the organization is “a mess.” What specific issues does the organization face?  How should he prioritize these?

2. Spencer notes that even the name of the organization, “Austin Area Interreligious Ministries,” is an issue. What are some of his concerns about the name, and how might he address that?  How have other interfaith organizations addressed this?

3. Spencer identifies youth participation as a particular challenge: what initial ideas do you have for increasing youth engagement?

 

[1] All quotes from Tom Spencer: Tom Spencer interview by Ellie Pierce, Cambridge, MA, June 6, 2011, and October 19, 2011.