Do Nonprofit Boards Neglect Oversight of Internal Leadership Development?

Do Nonprofit Boards Neglect Oversight of Internal Leadership Development?

By: Eugene Fram

Although the nonprofit CEO is charged with nurturing the development of his/h staff, the board is responsible for over-viewing the process. Research evidence shows both board and management are neglecting their duties in regard to this responsibility. Only 30% of nonprofit CEO positions are filled internally, a rate that is about half the rate of for-profit organizations. * The same research shows that, “Hiring the more (internal personnel) can improve performance at the two-year mark by 30%.” These data are even more troubling when roughly related to those of large corporations that concluded that 40% of those hired from outside the organizations are replaced within 18 months. **

Why Are Nonprofit Boards Not Paying Enough Attention?

Board Turnover: The most common board structure is two consecutive 3-year terms. Board chairs most commonly serve two consecutive 1-year terms. This in itself can easily create a “short term” board culture. Board members and chairs know they have relatively short tenures and may want to take actions that show more immediate results. Leadership development can be the antithesis of such actions. It takes time and nurturing.

The Board-CEO Relationship: Nonprofit boards, as conservators of the organizations assets, are often hesitant to remove an incumbent CEO, sometimes, even when the person has been involved with nefarious activities. Consequently, many nonprofit CEOs are what I call “mind-the-store” types. They have small growth percentages each year, have their financial processes in order, but fail to have competent subordinates who are capable of promotion. As a result, those board members who want to establish a culture for leadership growth have to wait for the incumbent CEO to leave or retire. Most board members, as volunteers, fear the interpersonal conflict and added time commitment that follows a board initiated CEO termination. As a result, all plans for change, such as leadership development, can’t thrive without the active support of the CEO.

The CEO’s Comfort Zone: Few, if any nonprofit CEOs I have encountered take pride in reporting that some of their direct or indirect subordinates have left for substantial success elsewhere. Many currently who have risen in the organization from a line position have had to acquire newer management skills. Consequently, less qualified incumbent CEOs may view more able but less experienced subordinates as a career threat, and they have little interest in promoting leadership development.

Moving Leadership Development Into a Nonprofit Culture

A board member who serves for six years can have some opportunities to introduce leadership development into a nonprofit organization’s culture:

When Interviewing A CEO Candidate: Ask about leadership development in prior jobs. Ask the candidate about his/h most outstanding direct report and the most problematic one. Look for answers relating to pride in developing subordinates and for engaging able younger managers
throughout the organization. Also ask references about these issues.

A New Strategic Plan: Have the board agree with the CEO that leadership development is critical at all levels and establish some modest mutual objectives to begin the process of introducing a new strategic plan.

When The Lack of a Process Affects the Nonprofit’s Impacts: Establish leadership development as a major CEO objective to be accomplished within a reasonable time frame. Seek a new CEO, if the person fails to perform.

Younger people often seek careers in nonprofit organizations because they want to contribute to the lives of others or to the social welfare of the greater community. After some years of direct service experience, some may discover they have leadership potential. Without a leadership development culture, nonprofits will lose these able persons to the for-profit sector, for better financial rewards, or find they will become staff persons who do their job adequately but look other outside activities, like political office, to satisfy their leadership ambitions.

** Ibid.


  1. The notion of leadership development, co-sharing executive level responsibilities as part of ongoing training of your bench team, rather than succession planning, which might seem like a threat and a more imminent reality, might be a more palatable substitute.


    1. Good point. Thanks for enlarging the discussion. Am in the process of publishing a new book, now with the publisher. Wished I had you comment several months ago.!


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