17/100 Things We’ve Learned: Executive Directors have a tough job

Does Rumplestiltskin describe the life of a typical nonprofit CEO?

You remember the fairy tale. A poor miller’s daughter is locked into a room by the king and told to spin straw into gold upon penalty of death. She is saved by the appearance of a odd little person called Rumplestiltskin who offers to spin straw into gold for her but only on the condition that she give up her first born child.

Has your board imprisoned your Executive Director?

In surveys conducted across the U.S., most nonprofit executive directors report that they love their work. Yet they also lament how they’re subject to constant stress, never ending days (and evenings and weekends), and financial and personnel worries.

If there is anywhere in an organization that the buck truly stops, it’s in the office of the executive director. Yea, the moral authority of the organization is on the shoulders of the Board. But the reality… it’s the CEO responsible for success or failure.

According to a survey done by The Urban Institute ” more than a quarter of CEOs [of mid-sized organizations] rate their boards as fair or poor when it comes to evaluating the CEO, planning, monitoring programs and services, dealing with the community, and educating the public about the organization.”

Time after time, I hear from the executive directors of very successful nonprofits how alone and unsupported they feel. “I appreciate the vote of confidence of my board, but I don’t feel completely comfortable steering this ship without some direction from the Board.”

Certainly boards hire their chief executives for their leadership and with high hopes for great outcomes. But like the poor miller’s daughter, few mortals have gold-spinning powers. Most need some support to achieve great results.

CEOs need a strong partnership with their Board. They want to find a collegial, dedicated and self-managed team that employs the right amount of monitoring while at the same time offering support and wise counsel.

Too often they get micromanagers instead, or equally bad, uninterested and unreliable directors the care and feeding of which just squanders precious time.

How do you know what your CEO needs from your board (beyond meaningful work, reasonable compensation, a healthy workplace, and opportunities for professional growth)?

There are two ways to find out:

1. Put yourself in your exec’s shoes. What would you want from the board if you were in that job?

2. Ask. You can learn a lot through direct conversation.

Don’t make your CEO strike a Faustian bargain with some funny little man. Supported by an effective board, many CEOs actually can spin straw into gold.


An earlier version of this appeared in Chapter 12 of Gayle’s book How are We Doing? A 1-Hour Guide to Evaluating Your Performance as a Nonprofit Board

2 responses to 17/100 Things We’ve Learned: Executive Directors have a tough job

  1. Steve Smith

    I’m on the board of a community development corporation here in Mass. and we’re dealing with exactly this. I see the exec feeling hemmed in on the one hand, yet not getting strategic direction on the other. And after three years we’re only now getting around to do a performance review. Sheesh. We need to snap to. I know I aggravate my colleagues on this board: the “know it all” consultant who’s going to save us from ourselves. Great position to be in. This helps me figure out how to be helpful and not a nag.

  2. GayleGifford

    Hey Steve, Nice to hear from you.

    I find that when I’m the “know it all” consultant on the board that it helps to have at least two other board colleagues in the same camp.


Leave a reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.