Dear board chairmen: Let me lead.

Electing a chairman of the board for nonprofits often means they have a new boss. This mentality poisons nonprofit staff and makes success impossible. Nonprofit leaders, usually with the title Executive Director, are scrutinized during job interviews for their leadership and success in management experience, yet the moment they start the job, they are demoted by the board chairman to become second tier management.

They mean well, but chairmen often think that nonprofit leaders need to know what they know about how to ‘do business.’ They are CEOs, so they want to be in charge. By acting as a CEO, they come in with an agenda, have operational priorities, and micromanage the entire nonprofit staff as their leadership team, bypassing the Executive Director. This is despite the fact that most nonprofit leaders have extensive experience on what works and what doesn’t in regard to making social change happen. These leaders know how to get things done in ways that a Fortune 500 executive never imagined. They know their clients, the staff and the laws that guide their work.

You hired them because they have shown they are good at this. Let them lead.

Healthy leadership of any business requires leaders in the organization every day, with long term vision and strategy, who make good decisions, can streamline operations, have stamina and are great managers. Yet some chairman expect an Executive Director to manage a 10-year strategic plan when and have to address a vision from a new chairman every other year? No business succeeds that way.

When this happens, good nonprofit leaders are stuck with a chairman that takes the reigns and uses the Executive Director as a secretary, while the rest of the board usually says nothing. It is even worse if the chairman does this for several terms. Then the board is surprised when they resign.

How can a board member, especially the chairman change this culture?

First, change the Executive Director title to CEO. These are executive leaders, give them the correct title. This helps prevent the chairman from the temptation of becoming CEO. It also requires the nonprofit leader to take on executive level leadership and responsibility.

Second, everyone needs to know their roles.

  • The board is legally responsible for good stewardship of the nonprofit’s resources, gives direction to long term strategy, evaluates the Executive Director/CEO and provides resources and network to achieve success.
  • The chairman is the liaison to the board for the CEO
  • Other board members must intervene when anyone is overstepping
  • The CEO must train and communicate this to the board.
  • Staff work for the CEO

Lead by providing what the nonprofit needs for success. Board chairman should take the lead to provide resources from the community. Nonprofits, unlike profit-driven businesses, need the chairman to champion paying market rates for talent and investing in professional development. They need you to approve innovative ideas, and raise money for reserves. Nonprofits are expected to prove they create social change – and chairman should fight for better than 2% annual raises. Be a hero – give a bonus! Nonprofits are given hand-me-down computers with old software. Their HR policy is to do as much as you can with as little as you can and hire as cheap as you can. These are board decisions a chairman can change.

Finally, get more strategic about board recruitment. Nonprofits need board members that are passionate about the mission and fight for its success in the community. Board members must be required to attend meetings and become knowledgable about the root causes of issues the nonprofit is addressing. Board members are best when they are learning from the organization. They should be diverse and represent thought leaders from unique perspectives that help the nonprofit get better at their mission.

To all the great chairmen and board members. Bravo! You are the difference.

I wrote this based on 30+ years of experience in nonprofit work, and on many discussions with great nonprofit leaders. In every situation where I see a nonprofit succeed, they have chairmen and board members that have put in the hard work together to find this balance of leadership and support.

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