The Demise of the Radiant Panel Association

By Lawrence Drake
Founder and Executive Director of the RPA, July 1994 to March 2009

November 27, 2011

When an organization is in trouble, fingers start to point.  What better place to point than at the one who allegedly, “left the organization in shambles.” The person accused is none other than myself, past Executive Director of the RPA.  According to reliable sources, this is the word that is being spread by certain persons associated with the Radiant Panel Association’s current Board of Directors. 

There is no other business like a non-profit trade association.  Particularly one set up under the 501(c)3 rulings established by the IRS, and with a rotating board of directors.   In 1994, after being commissioned by three radiant heating manufacturers to study the potential of a new radiant association, I filed for non-profit status with the IRS.  A temporary board of directors was established, bylaws written up, and I was contracted to get the new organization established. 

What started out as a part time, temporary contract, turned out to be a full time career as Executive Director.  Over the next fifteen years the Radiant Panel Association grew from an office in my spare bedroom, to a recognized and respected industry trade organization with almost a thousand member companies. 

Looking back, there was one major flaw in the founding of the organization.  It was a flaw that would eventually cause its downfall.  It was a flaw that is not unique to the RPA, but one that plagues many non-profit organizations.  That flaw is the method of establishing a board of directors.

Like many other non-profit organizations, the members voted the RPA directors into office.  This, in itself, is not the flaw.  The flaw is that the one and only criteria for becoming a board member was to be a current member of the RPA.  This opened the door to board members that, however accomplished they were within their own fields, often had little or no understanding of the workings of a non-profit organization or even operating a business.  Not only that, but they could be a brand new member of the organization without any experience with the RPA.  They may have never participated on a committee, attended a conference, belonged to a chapter, or even received a newsletter.  Couple this with a board that rotates one fourth of the board members off the board every year, introducing new members annually, and you have a formula for chaos.

It only took a few years for this flaw to become apparent, but by that time it was entrenched in the bylaws and only the board could change it. Every attempt that was made to incorporate board member qualifications into the election process was thwarted. Fortunately, for many years the RPA board had enough level headed and experienced board members to keep the organization on track.

The reality of the election process is little understood by most people, whether the RPA or any organization.  It is a small minority that determines the future of the majority.  In the case of the RPA, in the waning years less than 2% of the members voted in the board elections.  That meant that almost anyone could get elected if they just got a few of their friends and colleagues to cast their votes.  The process was more a popularity contest than selecting truly qualified candidates.

Managing an organization under the direction of a board, many of which were well meaning but ill equipped for their position, was frustrating at best.  Some had aspirations of remaking the whole organization after their own agenda.  A few were actually out to destroy the organization for whatever reason.

From a management point of view, the Executive Director manages the day-to-day operation and provides the board with information and suggestions on which to make evaluations.  The board is to define the direction of the organization and make major policy decisions.  Unfortunately, an inexperienced board often gets drawn into micromanaging the organization to the point that so much board time is spent on insignificant details that they never get to the important issues.  Such was the case with the RPA.

"an inexperienced board often gets drawn into micromanaging the organization"

By 2008, the micromanagement of the RPA board had become so extreme that I felt my staff and I could no longer properly service the organization and its members.  Every little transaction was scrutinized and challenged.  Even the biannual audit, conducted by an independent certified public accounting firm, was called into question.  Absurd and unfounded allegations of wrongdoing were leveled at my management team.  The working relationship with the board, and in particular the executive committee, became intolerable.

In July of 2008, with much sorrow, I gave my notice to the board that I was terminating my management contract. The board had six months to establish new management.

What transpired next left my staff and me in total disbelief.  Over the following eight months the board turned down every offer from numerous entities to manage the organization.  I made many suggestions and proposals to assist in any transition, all of which were rejected.  In the final hour, the board sent a member to our office, packed up everything in a container, hauled it off across the country to a board member’s basement. On April 1, 2009, this board member, a mechanical contractor, was put in charge of managing the RPA.  Neither the board nor the new management made any effort to contact us for assistance from that point on.

Over the next two years, the board made one poor decision after another, spending money on facilities and hiring overpaid, unqualified staff.  Not a single newsletter was issued.  Communication with members was almost non-existent.  Conferences were poorly run with huge loses, and membership fell.  Large debts built up and commitments went unmet.  Taxes went unpaid and financial reporting to members abandoned.  Lucrative contracts were lost through default and important relationships damaged.

When the board took over the management in 2009, the RPA was well respected, was current on all its obligations, and had a considerable amount of capital in reserve.  To be fair, like many organizations, we also had ongoing negotiations with a convention center over disputed charges, most of which could have been resolved in time.

Within two years of management by the board, the organization was destitute and on the verge of bankruptcy.  The executive committee was unable to produce a single financial statement other than a checkbook.

"I fully expected that I would be the logical scapegoat"

I fully expected, once leaving the RPA, that I would be the logical scapegoat for any future problems.  This was a role that was inevitable.  It seems to be human nature to blame the former administration for the current woes.  With the RPA recently in the news due to its possible affiliation with IAPMO, new allegations directed towards my staff and me have surfaced, evidently to thwart attention from the board’s failings.

One very important point to make is that the board is ultimately in charge.  Whether choosing a venue for a conference years in advance or setting up an education program, the board first approves the activities of the organization. Our job as management was to make these things happen by the most efficient and cost effect means possible, regardless of whether or not we agreed with the direction.  The board was steering the ship long before I left.
I can say with pride that my staff and I more than fulfilled our obligation.  We brought life to the RPA, kept the members engaged and got more mileage from a dollar than thought possible.  Most importantly, we kept the members first and foremost in our day-to-day operations.  As a result, the organization accomplished far more than its size would indicate.  Unfortunately, certain members of the board felt they could do a better job of running the organization.  In fact, they ended up ruining the organization.

For anyone who is interested in the true facts, you are welcome to view the 2008 auditors report.  Compare it to the sorry state the organization is currently in, and come to your own conclusions. 

As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, the financials of the organization are public record.  The RPA 2008 audit report can be viewed at www.ThinkHydronics.com/Articles/08Review.pdf

For the sake of the radiant industry and the RPA members, I wish IAPMO, or whoever ultimately inherits the organization, all the best in reviving the RPA.


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