9. The Whistleblower’s Dilemma

Sarah Tober
5 min readSep 22, 2022

Being brave in the face of corruption

Sun Shines on the Road Less Traveled | My photo while finding bravery on a 4x4 trail in Colorado Sept. 2022

I decided to write the 12 lessons I learned in nonprofit leadership as a way to share my experience and hopefully help out others. The act has kept me motivated to write, a lifelong goal of mine and the therapeutic aspects can’t be denied as well. Letting go of the betrayal and mistreatment I received by others who were supposed to support my good work is a journey unto itself.

When I started questioning the Executive Committee (EC)’s decisions, the group of leading board members became hostile towards me. Acting in a way that was in detriment to the organization’s mission and goals, but in favor of bolstering a separate organization with a complete asset transfer.

One of the other critical reasons I write about my experience is to document what happened. What I learned about being an employee in Texas who whistle blew is that there are no protections for me or the organization against corrupt leaders. A few corrupt board members who were fiscally responsible for the nonprofit I managed, led and directed the complete transfer of funds and assets to another organization that did not have a 501(c)3 at the time of the transaction. An issue that the IRS or SEC could take up. If I had not put into writing what had been done to me and the organization, those same corrupt board members could have falsely asserted that I had done that transfer of my own volition and that they had no knowledge of it. This is where accurate minutes are necessary for organizational transparency and leadership and employee protection.

I have redacted and/or changed names of the organizations and board members involved. For reference TX Org is the statewide organization I managed and City Chapter is the rogue organization that formed last year. Here was my open letter read to the EC that should have been recorded in the minutes:

When the EC refused to put my letter into the minutes because it made them look “fiscally irresponsible,” I knew it was time to jump ship. An executive director never wants to have a “he said/she said” account of a nearly $1M transaction that was shrouded in conflict of interest and financial mismanagement.

When the EC refused to address what they had done and accept responsibility for their actions against my recommendations and leadership, I put in my resignation and offered a six month succession plan that a new ED might be hired and a supported transition take place. The EC again worked away from the board in presenting me with a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) document, a less than two week severance period and using my leftover vacation time reimbursement as their leverage. I never realized that if an employee in the state of Texas does not get a signed agreement upon hire for vacation time payout, an employer can withhold that earned time off also known as earned wages or accrued time off.

I learned how to be brave a long time ago. It’s not some super power possessed by some and not others, it’s a choice and a muscle we have to exercise.

You may think that whistleblowing always ends up looking like the picture above, but this is only me giving testimony in the Senate Transportation Committee in favor of SB 946 (that ended up passing and further defining my capabilities). In my case, I wrote a whistleblowing email that exonerated me from nefarious activities conducted by board leadership. As you will see in the email to the board these EC actions (or in some cases inaction) were unethical at best and at worst illegal.

In the end, I walked away from the organization. No one person on the board had the power to fire me, it would have taken a majority vote, but no one really wanted to fight the small leading group’s dishonesty. I can’t blame them. Nobody gets on a nonprofit board to deal with that level of internal conflict. The chair initially tried to defame my character, but the truth of what he and those few members did has been revealed with time. Initially, a number of board members who recognized the extent of the damage done by the EC immediately resigned and the other members have resigned over the year following, calling me to let me know about the disarray of the organization and how all the money has run out. The EC further wounded the organization when I was no longer a resource in the transition and funder relationships were dropped.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterword, some are strong at the broken places” — Ernest Hemingway

Watching the organizational legitimacy crumble after I made it relevant in the nonprofit industry and notable at the Texas Capitol over my near three year tenure, has been disappointing. However, sitting in prison for others’ fraudulence would have been devastating.

As President and Executive Director of this statewide nonprofit, I was able to recruit more than 14 board and advisory board members, pass two bills in the Texas Legislature, facilitate a SCOTUS Amicus Brief that resulted in a nationwide win against billboard blight, helped write and pass city, county, and state policy that furthered the visual environment, and fundraised half a million for the organization. After achieving all that, the EC withheld my last paycheck and reimbursement of vacation time. This all added up to a good reason not to sign a NDA or any legally binding contract with an unscrupulous group.