The Fantasy Nonprofit—Who Works There?

The Fantasy Nonprofit—Who Works There?

By: Eugene Fram                               Free Digital Photo

After three decades of immersion in the nonprofit culture, I occasionally allow myself to imagine what it would be like to start all over again. Assuming I were in the process of founding a new nonprofit I would have the authority to choose my own team! In this hypothetical, I could shape the mode of governance and select the participants I think would interface most effectively!

Here are some of the decisions I might make based on current realities: 

The Board of Directors   

I would want a diverse board of about 18 to 20 members, assuming that volunteer board members would need to lead some staff functions during a start up period. I would  be prepared to higher full-time staff for these functions as the nonprofit grows. Beyond the usual diversity parameters (male, female, age, ethnic, etc.), the requirement mix would also include the following backgrounds:

  • Three to four members who have experience with strategic planning. (I have encountered some boards without a single director with this qualification.)
  • About the same number who have demonstrated strong or emerging leadership skills, preferably have board experiences and the abilities to handle complex problem solving.
  • One board person with a legal background, another with accounting/financial capabilities. These are very important in the startup phase when bylaws are being ratified and accounting processes are established.
  • One member with a background in the mission or allied area in which the nonprofit operates.
  • Several members who are major donors and/or have community, professional or industry networks that can be of value to he new nonprofit.
  • Although some states require that one or more past/current clients be board members, I think it is the responsibility of the management and staff to be current on the level of stakeholder and client satisfaction and bring appropriate issues to the board’s attention.

Executive Director 

In this scenario, the executive director should have a very broad perspective of the mission field. The board will look to the ED to be alert to state of art field changes and how they may impact the nonprofit.   He/s must be some one who can comfortably interact with a wide variety of stakeholders—staff at all levels, business executives, politicians, national and local peers, major donors, etc.

The Board/ED Relationship

The board will be judging the ED on the bases of her/his management acumen. It will also look to the person for leadership on a daily basis and during crises. To accomplish these goals the board will need to:

  • Provide substantial authority delegation to the executive director for operational activities.
  • Be well acquainted with fund accounting.
  • Develop a professional peer relationship with the ED. It’s not unusual to hear EDs refer to their boards as their “boss” in a servant sense. This is far from a peer relationship. *
  • Work closely close working with the ED for fundraising. He/s will be the major source for fundraising opportunities from professional sources and foundations.
  • Not make an issue over ED errors as long as they are not consistent and/or material. Nobody does his/h jobs perfectly.
  • Meet with the ED occasionally on an individual basis to deepen the communications bond.
  • Eliminate the ED title to allow the chief operating officer to become the President/CEO. (If the bylaws list a volunteer as President/CEO, he/s may be subject to personal liabilities not incumbent on other directors.)
  • Develop a significant trusting relationship with the CEO and the management team.

The Staff 

It won’t be possible to define persons with specific staff job skills for the new nonprofit because they will vary widely, depending on the type of nonprofit. However, the following personal behaviors should have priority. Those who:

  • can complete assignments with a minimum of supervision.
  • are always learning on and off the job.
  • know how to think critically.
  • have superior verbal or writing abilities.
  • are considered “promotable” in their current positions.
  • are adept at leading teams.
  • may eventually be candidates for the CEO position.

Beyond fantasy: I have often said that people who work in nonprofits figuratively stand ten feet tall! It’s not so much who these individuals are but what impact they bring collectively to the pursuit of the organization’s mission.   Some of the thoughts above may help to pave the way!

* For more information, see:





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