What’s in a Name? Benefits of the Nonprofit Executive Director Title.

What’s in a Name? Benefits of the Nonprofit Executive Director Title.

By Eugene Fram

The most viewed blog on my nonprofit governance site is an article I wrote in 2008, “What’s in a Name? Benefits of the President/CEO Title. This article has had a stream of national and international viewing, sometimes as many as 50 daily. (Note this is four years after original publication.)

Recently, I read a review of the article, suggesting I didn’t cover the benefits of the nonprofit Executive Director title, probably the more common title for the chief executive of nonprofits. Following is a brief listing when the title is useful.

• When the nonprofit is in an embryo stage, and the organization needs substantial board involvement in organizational operations.
• When the chief operating executive has little management experience and the direction or counsel of the directors is required.
• When the board is small and directors are needed to raise funds at a community level, using venues such as: auctions, sponsored dinners, sponsored speakers raffles, golf events.
• As long as the board members perceive they must closely overview operations, especially financial operations.
• When the chief executive lacks fun raising experience.
• When the organization wants to remain small to serve a specific clientele.
• When the board want to retain a classical structure, often after it is needed

The problem is, as I see it, organizations function with this title long after the board should not be focused on operations but on policy, strategy and generative thinking.
Following are three case examples.

CASE A: This is a human services nonprofit with an annul budget of about $225,000 and with an administrative staff of 2.5 people. About 20 volunteers handle the caseload, but at times the administrative staff will assume case responsibilities. The board assists with fundraising, accounting and legal issues. The chief executive is an Executive Director. But is this he proper title.
CASE B: This is a local history museum with an annual budget of about $1million, employing 15 people. It is open seven days a week. However, the museum is also responsible for some historic buildings valued about $5 million. The chief executive is involved in fund raising, and the organization is financially
responsible for the historic buildings and their operations. The chief executive is an Executive Director. But is this the proper title?
CASE C: This is a human service organizations with an annual budged of $6 million, employing about 70 full and part-time people. The chief executive has been with the agency since its founding, has done an outstanding job, and is the point person on fund raising. The chief executive is an Executive Director. But is this the proper title?
My Analysis:

CASE A: This is an appropriate chief executive tittle for a small human services organization still highly dependent on the board for support.

CASE B: This situation may seem marginal, but there is good reason for moving the title to president/CEO. The staff size, the value of the buildings/ the financial responsibility involved, and the image the chief executive presents when fundraising as a principal manager. Old observation: “Principals only talk with principals.”

CASE C: Executive Director is not appropriate title in this case. Clearly the person has full authority for operations, and should have been given the president/CEO title long ago. (Happy to report the change was made recently.)

My blog site:http://bit.ly/yfRZpz

One comment

  1. Here’s my question: When does the staff person become an executive?

    Your post puts limits on the upper levels of the executive director title, but what about the lower levels.

    At what point does the work of the staff start taking on executive authority? When does the top staff person become the chief executive over the board, its executive committee or the individual who chairs the board/executive committee?


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