Designating a ‘Lead Director’ Can Help Nonprofit Boards Improve Their Operations

For several years, I have suggested that some NFP boards experiment with the addition of a Lead Director to their rosters, just as for-profit boards successfully have since 2002.  This blog is divided into two sections.  First is an abstract of an article published I published on  the topic in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (June 2, 2011, p.34). This will help the viewer understand how I am adapting a business board process to a nonprofit board   Following that is a field critique of my proposal provided by Mark Soundie.   Mark is uniquely qualified to comment. He provides counsel to boards for the following types of nonprofits:  social housing providers, voluntary & social enterprise organizations from all sectors and all sizes & types of charities,  His essay below  provides an excellent summary of the pros and cons. Also, I have noted from a current study that about 37% of a small subgroup of 420 nonprofit directors responding to an NACD study have designated directors on their nonprofit boards. In addition, 88% of the group concluded that their lead directors enhanced board effectiveness.* These nascent results are encouraging news. Finally, a link follows to a comprehensive article on lead directors that appeared in April, 2012 in The International Journal of Not-For-Profit Law, Vol.14, Numbers 1-2.pages 52-57.
Lead director article:

At this point, April 2013, there has been little field interest in my proposal.  If some NFP boards are interested in conducting a trial or experiment with the idea, I would be  delighted to be in contact. Please send me an e-mail at . 


Few nonprofit boards do a great job of overseeing their organizations. Both nonprofit board members and CEO’s share that concern: Asked to rank their performance with academic-style grades by the nonprofit group BoardSource, chief executives gave their boards a C+, while board members gave themselves a B. <!–more–>

The use of such directors became popular as a way to deal with the public concern about the business world that prompted passage of the Sarbanes-­Oxley law in 2002. That legislation spurred the New York Stock Exchange to enshrine the idea of lead directors as a way to show that a company was well governed.

Given how time consuming it is to serve as a nonprofit board chair, especially of a complicated organization like a university or hospital, it seems logical to empower another volunteer to formally fulfill some of the responsibilities expected of a board chair.

A lead director can assist the chair in the day-to-day needs of leading a board (while not micromanaging) and to assist in rehabilitating a dysfunctional board. This is especially important when the chair has little management or board experience. (Example: a concert pianist chairs a social-services board.)

At first glance, adding a lead director to the structure of a nonprofit board seems like formalizing a position in a way that could impede the relationship among the chair, the CEO, and other board members.

The lead director should be viewed as just the opposite, as the business world has demonstrated.  H/she can help the CEO work more effectively and efficiently with board committees, especially in driving the work of the strategic-planning groups.

What’s more, the lead director can be an additional consultant or mentor to the CEO, especially when the board chair is unavailable. Because the lead director would help the board run better, this move could also do much to build morale at nonprofit groups.


I think this is a great concept and the introduction of a Lead Director into most non-profits could make a huge difference.

These are my thoughts;

The role of Lead Director as outlined is a real departure from the established governance model that NFP organizations have worked to since their inception. The successful implementation of this new model would be a real challenge to many organizations that may see this as a criticism of their performance.

This is a multi-skilled and multifaceted position that most would find daunting (more than most are prepared to do). To support prospective Lead Directors there would have to be a specific and quite intense training programme (although I hate to use qualifications in respect of board members in the NFP sector this role could call for this level of commitment and validation). I believe that the title (Lead Director) is unhelpful in the NFP arena due to the connotation that a board member has a higher role than others and is a possible barrier to organizations looking at this model. I will continue to use the title in my response, but strongly recommend a change of title (still with director in it).

The relationship with the Chair and other board members needs a Lead Director to have great people skills, otherwise there is a danger of a “Big Brother” feeling developing. There also needs to be clear lines of demarcation between this role and that of others such as Company Secretary. I feel that as each of the identified roles in your article are developed for the NFP sector; they are built into a framework document for Lead Directors that contains a set of guidance documents, good practice examples and reference points. I see a real need for flexibility of approach within a strong framework as an essential factor in the successful delivery of Lead Directors.

To ensure continuity of role and delivery a Lead Director may have to be appointed in the same way that a Company Secretary can be and not subject to Board rotation/renewal in the same way as other board members. The role would then have to be written into the rules/constitution of the organization

To ensure quality and standards for Lead Directors an assessment criteria would have to be developed (probably internal and external validation).  Some sort of organisation/resource for Lead Directors would be needed to provide information, advice, training and networking opportunities. [Note: For-profit boards in the U.S. have a group of lead directors, from Fortune 500 companies, which meet several times a year.  Their suggestions are published in [Lead Director Network–Tapestry-Network — See Google]

There is a challenge in trying to sell this to a sector that does not have a great deal of confidence in its boards. The NFP sector sometimes need a proven model before they will adopt new thinking, this could be delivered through a pilot programme either delivered through academic means or by attracting funding or private sector support, this would probably take three years to design, implement, trial and evaluate. If the value of having a Lead Director can be established and then championed by those in the pilot, the sector is far more likely to adopt this.

Unfortunately some CEO’s are happy to have a weak board that does not challenge them too much, and this role could be perceived as a real threat by them (resistance from organisations in most need)

It is a shame that non-profits have not as yet seen the benefit of this but as with all new ideas a level of marketing/promotion is needed before people begin to see the possible advantages.

Mark Soundie, Governance Matters UK & Independent Community, Housing & Tenant Advisor

* NACD Nonprofit Governance Survey, 2012 – 2013, pp.10-11


  1. For the past 6 months we on our NFP Board have been wrestling with the topic of President versus CEO title. So far we haven’t come to a conclusion but are taking giving the CEO title to the president very seriously. Any suggestions? We are concerned that while it may seem trivial to some the implications later maybe something we can’t undo.


    1. Tim: Please send me an e-mail showing times and phone number where I can call you, pro bono. The suggestions are too voluminous for an e-mail. (I have published three editions of a book on the topic, the latest in 2011!!) I am on PST time.


  2. In several of the nonprofits I’ve worked with, either as an ED or consultant, I’ve introduced the role of “Managing Director” which I think conceptually is very similar to what you are endorsing. These organizations have all been small CBOs. The role is primarily one of a liaison between the board and the organization; the Managing Director is tasked with having a more in-depth understating of the day-today operations of the organization and can also serve as a mentor and coach to the ED. I think that this can help balance the load for the Board Chair but it can also provide a good basis for succession in terms of board leadership in that the Managing Director is the presumptive candidate for board chair. But care must be taken to ensure that a person in this role is operating more as an observer or at most a consultant and not as an active organizational manager – the management is of the relationship with the ED and organization. In the cases where organizations have tried this approach it seems to have worked to improve board functioning, at least in the short run.


    1. Al Yes we are on the same track. My assumption is that the LD is probably a well respected veteran director who has no interest in the chair position and will not have the usual term limits. Like an elder states-person who can be an honest broker. You might want to present you experiences in a short essays for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. If you would like to discuss this possibility, send me an e-mail and we can make arrangements to talk on the phone.



  3. Hi Eugene;
    Sorry for not responding earlier as I was involved with an ICD (Institute for Corporate Directors Canada) event. I will send you an email with my phone number shortly


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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