Get it in Writing

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 18th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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How do I love thee, nonprofit sector?  Let me count the ways.  Well, first:   Are we not a collegial sector;  one tempered by mutual respect? By the presumption that we are a team, working in partnership to achieve mutually defined and shared goals?

No, I am not naïve. I’ve worked and volunteered in this sector for decades.  I know the reality.  And I know that those who come into the sector truly understanding and valuing the presumption I outlined above, execute that presumption–fully.  Those who come in with a different frame of reference or who give lip service to the presumption or whose egos are bigger than they deserve to be, they are the ones who undermine the presumption and taint us all.

Increasingly, I’ve seen a lack of buy-in to this presumption and as a result, the ouster of some very accomplished executive directors, more often than not because a board has suddenly awakened from its slumber and decided it needed to be board-like.  It presumes that being board-like means taking control and acting top-down instead of valuing the partnership between board and executive director.  Don’t get me wrong, there are times—and I’ll be the first to champion and encourage it—where a board needs to take control and remove an executive director who has been under-performing.  But that, too, is a different blog.  This is the board that ousts an executive director seemingly on whim, for example merely months after a positive review, with no change in the executive’s behavior to warrant such a radical turn of events.  The board’s prerogative?  Absolutely.

So, what is an executive director supposed to do?  Obviously, the best defense is a good offense, so maintain a strong, honest and open a relationship with all board members, not just the board president. Insist on a comprehensive, annual performance review that is conducted in the open and according to an agreed upon and set process and timeline, and one that includes formal check-ins at quarterly of bi-annual intervals.  Encourage the creation of a learning culture within the board, beginning with a thorough orientation for all board members that addresses both the organization and the role of a board member and that stresses, among other things, the partnership between board and executive director and the differences between a traditional corporate culture and a nonprofit culture.  If not already there, adopt a learning culture of your own, so that you are always honing your skills and on top of your game.  Do not operate in your own silo, but remember and nurture the partnership of board and executive director that leads a nonprofit.

And absolutely have an employment contract. Not new to the nonprofit sector, it is something that has been very slow to catch on.  But its time has come.  As there are seemingly more and more boards that are acting capriciously instead of methodically and rationally, executive directors need to have some degree of protection.  What are the terms for contract renewal and termination? compensation while employed and if terminated? conditions of continued employment? and more.  As we watch the NFL enter into player negotiations, the trading of NFL and MLB players, coaches and managers, the pending drafting of new NFL players, there are lessons to be learned for the nonprofit executive director.  And I don’t mean holding out for eight figure contracts, but rather ensuring the fair and just treatment of highly skilled and trained talent recruited to do an important job and help ensure a team victory.  After all, that is exactly what a nonprofit board should seek in its hiring of an executive director:  a highly skilled and trained individual to help ensure organizational victory—the nonprofit’s mission.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.