The “Compliant” Nonprofit Board—A CEO Takes Charge Like a Founder!

The “Compliant” Nonprofit Board—A CEO Takes Charge Like a Founder!

By Eugene Fram              Free Digital Image

According to BoardSource, “ Founderitis’ and ‘founder’s syndrome’ are terms often used to describe a founder’s resistance to change. When founderitis surfaces, the source of the dilemma often is a founder’s misunderstanding of his or her role in an evolving organization.” * I would like to suggest that a nonprofit CEO also might suffer from the “founderitis illness,” sometimes with the board only being mildly or completely unaware of it.

Board Member Tenure versus CEO

The average board member tenure is six years (e.g., two three year terms) as compared with the average 12-year CEO tenure. ** The CEO has twice as longer period to influence polices and strategies. More importantly, she/h has more opportunity and time to acquire background knowledge and influence the organization’s culture.

“CEO Founderitis”—Typical Board Members & CEO Behaviors

  • The board is a dependent one, cancels or reschedules major committee/board meeting when the CEO can’t attend.
  • The CEO is overly verbose in presenting background information at meetings.
  • Concurrently, the number of board member comments is limited at most meetings.
  • The CEO places limits on the types of contacts the staff can have with board members, in the name of avoiding staff “end runs. “
  • The CEO carefully covets outside relationships and donor relationships. Board members are only marginally involved in fund development.
  • The Executive Committee does not challenge the CEO when setting the agenda.
  • The nonprofit board is satisfied with marginal gains each year, without seeking broader challenges to provide enhanced client services.
  • The CEO’s performance isn’t rigorously assessed.
  • The board rarely, if ever, overviews CEO and staff talent successions.
  • Board actions and activities are not rigorously reviewed or discussed.
  • Led by the CEO, Board resistance to change is substantial.

What should the board do if the CEO takes charge like a founder?

Three Options:

Does Nothing: This assumes the CEO is performing reasonably well in developing positive program impacts, not outcomes. (i.e, Program objectives can be achieved, but they can have little impacts on clients.)

The CEO and Board are satisfied with program outcomes as performance measures. As a result, the organization inadvertently may not be innovative. In addition, long-term organizational sustainability may be compromised. There may be long-term challenges on the horizon that go beyond the typical three to five year planning cycles.

A majority of board members may feel comfortable with this option because the CEO acts strongly, even though he/s occasionally may encroach on board’s perogratives.

Makes Changes: This will probably require the CEO & Board to change, modifying some of the behaviors listed above. The CEO then forms a partnership with a changing independent board.

Some board members will be satisfied the status quo, little is required of them. But others may want to remove a CEO who leads like a founder. Internal conflict will likely arise on both sides to delay or abort change.

A Solution? Don’t rock the boat. Only when the CEO, especially one with long tenure, suffering from “founderitis” makes a graceful exit will there be opportunity for change. Hopefully, the new CEO will develop a partnership culture with the board.



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