By: Eugene Fram

Whenever the time is ripe to select a new nonprofit CEO, I think of the old joke that says “…every person looks for the perfect spouse… meanwhile, they get married.” By the same token, nonprofit directors seek perfection in a new ED or CEO– and find that they must “settle” for less. But there are certain definitive attributes that are essential to his/her success in running the organization. With the pressures of increasingly slim budgets, fund development challenges and the difficulty of recruiting high quality employees, the 21st century ED/CEO must be action oriented and come equipped with at least a modicum of the following abilities: *

  • Visionary: It’s all about the organization’s future. The ED/elect should bring or at least begin to cultivate a deep concept of where the nonprofit is, should be and what the trajectory should look like. He/she can do that by immersing himself in the mission field—reading widely and remaining in contact with regional and national leaders in the field. A state-of-the-art CEO should be available for consultation with colleagues with similar issues. Included in his span of vision are potential disruptions that might affect the organization– and how to help the board focus on and implement appropriate change.
  • Board Enabler: The new chief understands the limits of his/h operational responsibilities and the governance overview role required by the board. To build trusting relationships with the board, she/h realizes that transparency is key.
  • Fundraiser: The optimal fundraising relationship is a partnership between the CEO and the board. Board members must be alert to outside funding opportunities and the CEO, alert to funding opportunities from sources related to the mission field. Once an opportunity is identified, the CEO and the board work closely together to develop a proposal and to meet with the donor(s). If the organization has a development director, the person filling the position must be brought into the discussion at an early stage.
  • Communicator: To be organizationally successful, the Board and CEO must be in a position to interact with a variety of stakeholders: government officials, donors, vendors, clients and their surrogates, foundations, etc. One area in which many nonprofit CEOs need improvement is communications with the business community. It goes beyond simply joining the Rotary or Chamber groups. Nonprofit CEOs must have rudimentary knowledge of many businesses so they can interact intelligently with business leaders they encounter in development efforts. This information can be about specific organizations they are approaching or general knowledge acquired from perusing publications like Business Week or The Wall Street Journal.
  • Spokesperson: Although some suggest that the volunteer president must be the spokesperson for the nonprofit, I suggest that the Executive Director/CEO must hold this position for several reasons.
  1. If a volunteer becomes a president/CEO, he/s may acquire some liabilities that other directors don’t have. The executive director must be the CEO. Some nonprofits have given the chief operating the tittle of president/ceo and the senior board person, board chair.  This eliminates confusion that often surrounds the ED title when contacting business or government officials.
  2. The volunteer president does not work in the organization daily and does not understand its nuances as well as the CEO.
  3. In a crisis situation, the media may contact board members.   It should be clearly understood that the CEO is the only person to comment to the media.
  4. In ceremonial situations, it may be appropriate for the president to be a spokesperson.
  5. The CEO needs to become the “face” of the organization because volunteer presidents come and go, some annually.
  • Team Builder: She/h needs to build a strong management team, some of whom, over time, may become capable of becoming an Executive Director. The CEO, as head of the management team, needs to be sure all staff are performing well with some being bench strength to move to higher positions.
  • Tone Setter: The CEO needs to set an ethical tone where everybody feels free to express their suggestions for improving the organization. This tone, in various ways, must also be communicated to all stakeholders by the Executive Director..
  • Performance Monitor: Hopefully the board has a rigorous and fair system for evaluating the CEO and the organization, and the values of this system are embedded in staff evaluations.








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