Too Little Board Deference to CEOs – Typical of Nonprofits?

Too Little Board Deference to CEOs – Typical of Nonprofits?

By: Eugene Fram

“Most nonprofit staff leaders still struggle to have a bona fide seat at the board table as a respected peer,” says Brian Foss, nonprofit consultant. He hypothesizes that this lack of respect is not so apparent on for-profit boards. “I rarely see nonprofit CEOs receiving the same deference. …they would enjoy in the for-profit setting.” Foss also notes that the situation has not changed appreciably during the 25 years in which he has served as a consultant.*

Attitudes in a working relationship such as Board/CEO are often deeply ingrained in board culture. Yet I am convinced that with the right oversight and approach they can be improved. Developing a new and mutually respectful management atmosphere will in time yield superior outcomes for the organization. Here are some basic thoughts for both boards and CEOs that I hope will upgrade the quality of the partnership.


THE RIGHT HIRE: Fundamental to a positive Board/CEO partnership is the wise “casting” of both parties. In selecting a CEO, reject the tired thesis that a nonprofit can meet its mission impacts with mediocre management: “It’s a nonprofit and one can’t expect good management.” Not so. In considering a potential CEO, don’t be blindsided by a candidate who loves the mission but lacks the motivation to manage and/or to expand her management skills.

CLEARLY DEFINED SPHERES OF RESPONSIBILITY: There should be reasonable clarity in the difference between board policy/strategy responsibilities and operational responsibilities. But beware- directors often have an inherent tendency to micromanage operations. The board’s primary jobs should be to overview and assess management outcomes and impacts and to focus on policy/strategy development. For a model having clarity of roles, see:

GETTING PERSONAL: Working together amicably becomes easier when directors have had a chance to relate to the staff leader on a relaxed and informal basis. There should be frequent opportunities to meet for a chat over coffee or away from the office.

CONSIDER THE CEO AS A FIELD DIRECTOR and encourage her to develop focused visions for the future. Provide growth opportunities and access to appropriate learning programs to keep current and maintain the state of the art in for the organization. In addition to interpersonal management skills, the CEO should have a working, not expert, knowledge of fund accounting.

A ROBUST & FAIR EVALUATION of the impacts of the CEO and the organization should be held annually. Although controversial, nonprofit boards and CEOs need to do a better job in assessing the qualitative outcomes of the organization. For an example see:


OPENNESS TO A SHARED GOVERNANCE PROCESS —-the ability to sit down with the board to comfortably work out the separate areas of board /staff responsibilities. Maintaining that arrangement.

COMPETENCY IN MANAGEMENT: Demonstrating over time strong management skills and the determination to improve them through external education and reviews by trusted colleagues and/or board member with acknowledged management expertise. Being open to performance review and accepting of constructive criticism.

VISION: Always being alert to new ideas, improved procedures, new technology, expanding the board’s vision of the possibilities of the future or, if necessary, restating the mission. Conveying a sense of realistic optimism when considering future opportunities.

ROBUST COMMUNICATING SKILLS: Keeping the board continually informed of what’s happening. Polishing those skills in both written and verbal forms. Being a convincing spokesperson for the organization at all times: in the event of crisis or in the forum of soliciting support.

REALISTIC FINANCIAL OUTLOOK: Competency with the fiscal facts of life in a nonprofit: income projections, budgets, deficits, etc. A working knowledge of fund accounting is critical.

PEOPLE SKILLS: It all comes down to human relations. The ideal CEO, strong and secure in her position, will value her connections with a huge and diverse population: directors, members, constituents, volunteers, donors and more. How she relates to each of them, the importance of how she projects herself and the organization cannot be overstated!


The word deference in Brian Foss’ hypothesis has several meanings. In the nonprofit governance context it conjures up a body of board people working with a skilled operational leader (CEO) to jointly fill a community or industry need. Not so different from today’s national governance challenges where the dictionary meaning of deference, i.e. respect, esteem to a superior, courteous yielding to the judgment of another– is all but forgotten! Let deference prevail in the nonprofit boardrooms!

“If only boards would grasp the true meaning of partnership and recognize – and honor – which each (Boards & CEOs) brings to the table! In fact, each has no role except the partnership with the other.” Alliance for Nonprofit Management blog-post comment by Liz Heath 8-22-2013

* Brian Foss (2013) “Governance Is Governance: Can We Get There?” You and Your Nonprofit Board, Rancho Santa Margarita, Ca., Charity Channel Press, pp. 15-21,

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