Three former members of the board of directors of Lost-n-Found Youth who resigned together last November, including one whom many consider one of the largest reasons for the organization’s massive increase in both fundraising and national recognition, have come out against the reinstatement of Rick Westbrook to the executive director position, with one of them saying “he lacks the skill set needed to be successful in this role and, reinstating him as executive director could ultimately devastate an organization already at risk of failing.” All of this occurs at the end of the most tumultuous week in the organization’s five-year history and just as a Lost-n-Found board meeting will occur to decide whether to reinstate the group’s former leader.
Justin Ziegler, a gay Atlanta realtor and former vice chair of the organization’s board, issued a lengthy statement Thursday morning calling for the board of directors to convene an independent panel to review all of Lost-n-Found’s financial records, policies and procedures, employee files and more. Ziegler also called for a public meeting to be called in the next 30 to 60 days for the results of the independent panel investigation to be shared.
But the most eye-catching part of Ziegler’s statement is his criticism of Westbrook, whose demotion on Monday drew an intense backlash from many in Atlanta’s LGBT community. And even more significant was the full support of Ziegler’s statement by Daniel Ashley Pierce, a former client and board member of Lost-n-Found Youth whose story made international headlines in 2014 after he was hit and yelled at by his father, stepmother and grandmother during an “intervention” about his being gay. Pierce secretly recorded the fight on his cellphone, the YouTube video of which has since been viewed nearly 8.7 million times. Lost-n-Found stepped in to help him get back on his feet, and after a GoFundMe campaign started by Pierce’s then-boyfriend, now-fiancé David Estrada received $90,000 in donations, Pierce asked that all future donations be made to Lost-n-Found.
Ziegler writes in his statement, “Based on the size of the organization, the comprehensive salary and benefits package provided to the most recent executive director and the needs of the organization, I highly recommend a national search for an executive director candidate with a strong and proven development track record to execute a $1.1M capital campaign as well as the skills needed to transform the internal operations and programs and services available to clients. The new executive director should have a terminal degree in a relevant field, some sort of background in a health and human services field, be familiar with the needs of the LGBT community and the issue of homelessness, and possess the ability to masterfully maneuver through human resource management and client issues.”
The statement continues, “While I applaud Rick’s role in the founding of this organization, his amazing work in community outreach and have much love for him on a personal level, it is my opinion that he lacks the skill set needed to be successful in this role and, reinstating him as executive director could ultimately devastate an organization already at-risk of failing. The need and mission of LnF are too vital for it to fail.”
Pierce posted a statement on Facebook Thursday evening thanking Lost-n-Found Youth for their assistance, adding, “As a former board member, I fully support the public statement that Justin Ziegler made earlier. Justin is a friend, before and after we served together on LnF’s board of directors. I echo his sentiments of concern and look forward to more transparency, accountability and believe that LnF’s best days are still ahead of them, provided the appropriate oversight and actions are taken.”
Ziegler’s statement was also supported by former board member Skyler Akins, who tells the Georgia Voice. “We need to come together and remember that LNFY is about helping end homelessness in Atlanta and has always been bigger than any one person. As a former board member, I did not and still do not believe that Rick is the man that can raise or manage a $1 million capital project to open the Juniper Street House, but I do believe that Rick is the most loving, dedicated, and committed person to the youth of Atlanta, which is why I supported the reorganization to hire Rick to do what Rick does best, which is outreach and support for our youth. I fought fervently for the reorganization plan the recently defunct board passed and believe that it is the best plan for a LNFY that is accountable, transparent, and efficient with the money that our gracious donors entrust to us.”
Ziegler, Pierce and Akins resigned together on the same day last November, citing “serious concerns with the management of the organization” in a resignation letter reviewed by the Georgia Voice.
After being asked by the Georgia Voice for a response to Ziegler’s statement Thursday, Westbrook stated he would comment after Friday night’s board meeting.
Comparisons made to now-shuttered YouthPride
Ziegler also made comparisons between what’s going on now with Lost-n-Found Youth to that of YouthPride, once a vital resource for Atlanta’s LGBT youth that crumbled in 2014 after a number of years of evictions and mismanagement by the group’s late executive director Terence McPhaul.
“As we have recently seen a mass exodus of staff, volunteers and members of the board of directors, I am reminded of what happened to YouthPride several years ago when the board ‘disbanded’ and the executive director continued to operate the organization with no accountability,” Ziegler writes. “It left a huge void of service for our youth that ended with a lot of community money being spent to fund the salary of one man.”
Ziegler goes on to say that two of the five remaining board members of Lost-n-Found “fostered a hostile environment” and “belittled other board members, intimidated them and steered them in the wrong direction.” There were 12 board members as of Monday morning, but since then seven—Chris Burgess, Michelle Groover, Ed Smith-Lewis, J. Harry Shannon, Charlotte Cagle, Keith Hollingsworth, and Maureen Kalmanson—have resigned. The Georgia Voice was the first to report of Cagle’s resignation, and as of this story is the first to report on Kalmanson’s resignation. Project Q Atlanta first reported Hollingsworth’s resignation on Wednesday.
The Georgia Voice was also the first to report on the resignation of former chief operating officer Clayton Skinner, and as of this story is the first to report of the resignation of volunteer coordinator and special events coordinator Debra Ranfels.
A board meeting is schedule for Friday evening at 6:30 p.m. at Lost-n-Found Youth’s headquarters, and Westbrook’s supporters have vowed to be there.
Here’s the full text of Ziegler’s statement:
August 25, 2016
Over the past week, a dialogue has been ongoing in the community surrounding the recent announcements regarding leadership restructuring at Lost-n-Found Youth (LnF.) I have heard an array of opinions from former staff, board members and volunteers but mainly, I have heard lots of opinions from members of the community who may have been misinformed. As the former board vice-chair, executive committee member and longest sitting board member at the time I resigned last November, I am intimately familiar with the inner-workings of the organization.
Before I continue with a message that needs to be heard, I want to openly state that my only intentions are to protect the homeless LGBT youth that Lost-n-Found Youth strives to serve and to ensure donations are being treated with fiduciary responsibility so that they can have the maximum intended impact that their donors were promised. I also want to reiterate that all board positions are volunteer and that I, nor any board members I am aware of, have ever been compensated for our time or talent.
While I praise Rick Westbrook and the hours he’s spent fighting homelessness and HIV/AIDS on the streets of Atlanta, it is my sincere opinion that the board needs to take immediate action and convene an independent panel of forensic accountants, human resource professionals, attorneys and auditors to thoroughly review all bank accounts, policies and procedures, employee files, bylaws, client data and that they should conduct interviews with past & present staff, board members, clients and major donors.
As we have recently seen a mass exodus of staff, volunteers and members of the board of directors, I am reminded of what happened to YouthPride several years ago when the board “disbanded” and the executive director continued to operate the organization with no accountability. It left a huge void of service for our youth that ended with a lot of community money being spent to fund the salary of one man.
It is my opinion that the board has now been rendered incapable of governing the organization, the executive staff or itself. While I was on the board, two of the current remaining five board members created and fostered a hostile environment in which they belittled other board members, intimidated them and steered the them in the wrong direction. One of them even told me that I didn’t “know anything” because “you can’t run this organization like a business because it’s not, it’s a non-profit.”
Non-profit organizations must absolutely be run like a business, and by competent people with a savvy business acumen. While non-profits may not have shareholders expecting returns on investment, there are donors who count on their money being spent in a responsible way and clients who desperately need services and assistance. Every dollar wasted is a dollar that could be fighting homelessness on the streets of Atlanta.
In the spirit of transparency, I believe that a public meeting should be called in 30-60 days and the results of the independent study should be shared with the public. At that meeting, each of the third party auditors should be present to answer questions directly from the community and all organizational books, records and finances should be made public, with the exception of client records. The panel of professionals should also provide recommendations for re-filling the empty positions on the board of directors, executive committee and all director level and above staff positions within the organization. They should also provide their suggestions on organizational structure relative to the mission, needs and budget of the organization. Employee salaries and job descriptions should be updated accordingly, based on those expert opinions.
Based on the size of the organization, the comprehensive salary and benefits package provided to the most recent executive director and the needs of the organization, I highly recommend
a national search for an executive director candidate with a strong and proven development track record to execute a $1.1M capital campaign as well as the skills needed to transform the internal operations and programs & services available to clients. The new executive director should have a terminal degree in a relevant field, some sort of background in a health and human services field, be familiar with the needs of the LGBT community and the issue of homelessness, and possess the ability to masterfully maneuver through human resource management and client issues.
While I applaud Rick’s role in the founding of this organization, his amazing work in community outreach and have much love for him on a personal level, it is my opinion that he lacks the skillset needed to be successful in this role and, reinstating him as executive director could ultimately devastate an organization already at-risk of failing. The need and mission of LnF are too vital for it to fail.
It is imperative that LnF place the needs of the clients it serves at the forefront of all decision-making and hire the person who will best navigate Lost-n-Found Youth into the new center while focusing on executing the mission of the organization within the bounds of the law with stewardship to the generous donors who invest in the mission.
I realize that this frank and open sharing of my opinion will likely come at the cost of friendships and popularity. I remind everyone to consider my only motivation is to protect the interests of homeless LGBT youth living on Atlanta’s streets and safe guard the donations pledged by members of the community to pay for services that will bring real change to the quality of their lives. I sincerely believe this can happen if the organization moves forward in a thoughtful way to hire professionals and engage a new board that will both work together in an intentional way to execute and grow the mission of LnF.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke
Yours in activism,
Justin “JZ” Ziegler