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Board relationship
11/21/2014 12:00 AM

Another nonprofit executive loses his job and Board & Administrator Editor Jeff Stratton cautions CEOs to avoid the common pitfalls that lead to firings.

It seems like boards get a little spooky in the late fall of the year. Maybe it’s a hangover from Halloween, or maybe it’s just their nature.

The Board Doctor Hotline (515.963.7972; lit up recently with scary happenings:

  • A Texas administrator just received a glowing evaluation from his board. But a mere week later his executive committee was meeting in closed session without him and wouldn’t tell him or the rest of the board why!
  • A Michigan executive director said his firing “absolutely” blindsided him and he didn’t have a clue as to why the board terminated his employment.

It’s devastating to the nonprofit executive when a board acts this way. But it’s really not surprising. That’s because of one simple rule the CEO needs to know about working for a board: It can do just about anything it wants to.

An excerpt from this communication sent to me by a terminated nonprofit executive serves as a reminder: “I read and heard of other CEOs who struggled with their boards and knew, complacently, that I would never have such problems. I took pride in communicating openly and honestly with my board. In spite of all this, my board spiraled out of control over a building purchase I opposed. The seller was a crony of one of our board members and he was offering his property to us at a very inflated price. My board lacked the ability to discipline itself and eventually, I was the casualty.”

In your relationship with the board, you need to learn to recognize the danger signs that can lead to severe board and administrator conflict. They usually crop up in one of these five areas:

  1. A failure to provide a thorough orientation to new members. One untrained board member can put the executive director on very thin ice.
  2. “Cornering” your board. In a battle with a board member over just about anything, the CEO is almost always the outsider. Never put your board in a corner by asking them to pick you over a board colleague.
  3. Not controlling the board/staff connection. It’s a simple rule, but too often administrators don’t enforce it: The board should never deal directly with staff. Staff management is your responsibility.
  4. You must lead your organization. The board chair leads the board, but you are the one who will take the organization into the future. The board needs your professional wisdom, your guidance and your recommendations.
  5. Remember the Golden Rule of board/administrator relations: No surprises. It is always your personal responsibility to ensure every board member has the same information. Once this trust is violated, you will end up on shaky ground with your board.

Sincerely, Jeff Stratton, Editor


Board dysfunction
11/14/2014 12:00 AM

Executive Directors Patricia Branson and Sherri Gideon share their views on dysfunctional board behavior and how it can hurt the nonprofit.

What’s on your list of behaviors a board member should never engage in while serving?

For Executive Director Patricia Branson (Kodiak, Alaska;, it is a board member who insists he has an administrative role, instead of focusing on policy.

“Getting involved with operations and staff and thinking they sit on the board to solve these kinds of problems is what I hate to see,” Branson said. “I have seen more conflict in this area, and it is the downfall not only for boards but for the agencies themselves.”

Executive Director Sherri Gideon (Denton, Texas; hates to see bad attitudes on the board. “Board members should never talk negative about their organizations, other board members, the executive director or the staff in public,” she said.

Gideon said that negative subjects should not be avoided, just kept in the board room so that the organization isn’t harmed by public reaction.

Board members also create problems when they make promises to those outside the organization, Gideon said. “Board members should never recruit people to our organization, whether that is a board member, an employee or a volunteer, with a promise that the organization will have a place for them,” she said. “It’s fine to invite someone to apply for a position, but the board member needs to leave it up to those who make the decisions and perform the appropriate screening.”

Board Policy
10/31/2014 12:00 AM

CEO Linda Osmundson and her board in St. Petersburg, Fla., are thoughtful in their approach to board contact with program participants.

If your board recruitment pool has candidates from your organization’s volunteers, from the executive’s perspective, this can present a thorny board member/program participant contact issue.

After all, a former volunteer may have had some regular—and meaningful—interaction with program participants.

CEO Linda Osmundson (St. Petersburg, Fla.; said her board makes it policy that board members cannot volunteer in the organization’s programs. “That makes it generally unlikely that they would have interactions individually with program participants,” she said.

There are better ways for board members to “touch” your nonprofit’s programs and interact with those you serve. Osmundson shares some ideas that work at her organization, CASA (Community Action Stops Abuse):

  • Have program participants participate at board meetings. Osmundson says the board might hear a presentation from a client on a particular topic or simply hear his or her story at the meeting.
  • Have program participants present at fundraisers. Board members can interact with your clients in that type of setting, Osmundson says.
  • Count on interaction during facility tours. This is a logical time for board/client interaction. “Program participants may meet and speak with our board members when the trustees tour our facilities,” she said.
  • Run into each other at the organization’s annual meeting. Osmundson said that board members often attend potlucks and picnics at the organization and interaction occurs during these settings.

Client/board member contact shouldn’t be flatly discouraged because it’s the type of interaction that taps into board members’ passion for your cause and keeps them engaged, but one issue to be considered regarding board/program participant contact is a strong confidentiality policy, Osmundson said. Her organization has a very specific policy about the confidentiality of program participants, she said.

“Thus, if a board member referred [his] neighbor to our CASA emergency shelter, the board member could not call her and ask to speak to the neighbor in our shelter unless the neighbor has given us a release for the board member to talk to her,” Osmundson said.

The need for client confidentiality creates another issue, Osmundson said. Board members are prohibited by policy from reading confidential files on a program participant for any reason, she said.

11/7/2014 12:00 AM

These tools from Board & Administrator reader Jan Mancinelli (Petoskey, Mich.) and Editor Jeff Stratton can improve the effectiveness of your board member orientation strategy.

10/11/2013 12:00 AM
Longtime Board & Administrator-For Administrators Only reader CEO Rod Braun (Pella, Iowa), offers strategies to improve this example grievance procedure.

Take a couple of minutes to review the following problem resolution/grievance process used by one nonprofit to resolve employee grievances. See if you can spot the danger area for the executive director.

Then read the comments from longtime Board & Administrator reader CEO Rod Braun (Pella, Iowa) that will improve this policy to make it work better for the administrator.

Problem Resolution/Grievance Process

  • Employee grievances have been defined as anything in the employee’s work relationship that causes distress, complaints or feelings of having been treated unfairly or improperly by a supervisor, department head, member of the administrative staff or fellow employee. It is only natural for occasional problems to arise between employees, or between an employee and a supervisor. Administration recognizes this, and will maintain the following orderly grievance procedure:
  • Any employee with a problem or grievance related to his employment may present the grievance to his immediate supervisor, who shall give it prompt consideration and a reasonable answer if it is within her jurisdiction to do so.
  • If the employee is not satisfied by the action taken under Step 1, within seven (7) days after the supervisor takes the action, she may present the grievance in writing to her department head. The department head will meet with the employee and attempt to resolve the matter.
  • If the employee is not satisfied by the action taken under Step 2, he may appeal the matter to the Administrator. If the matter is not resolved to the employee’s satisfaction by the Administrator, the employee may, within seven (7) days after such action is taken, make a written request for a hearing. At this point in time, the Administrator shall appoint three (3) or more organization employees from departments other than the employee’s department to serve as a committee to conduct a hearing on the matter. The committee shall investigate both sides of the issue and, within five (5) days after the investigation is completed, make a recommendation to the Administrator. Promptly thereafter, the Administrator shall make a decision on the matter. The Administrator’s decision will be considered final.

From the CEO’s perspective, Braun’s main issue with this policy starts with step 3. “I’m not fond of having an appointed group of employees from other departments acting in an advisory capacity and then making a recommendation to the CEO,” he said. “I think word would get out in an organization that an employee with a concern took it to the appointed group but that the CEO went against their recommendation.”

If that happens, expect two possible outcomes: one is that no one will ever want to be appointed to hear such a grievance for fear the process is just tokenism and the other is that since the appointees are only advisory to the CEO, the aggrieved employee would probably see the process as a waste of time.

On the pro side of step 3, Braun said it can be argued that CEOs don’t always make perfect calls and that is why he is asking for a recommendation from an appointed group. “For this policy to work effectively, I think the CEO would have to follow the recommendation at least ninety-five percent of the time,” he said.

If you are a CEO with a grievance policy like this, periodically give data to your employees so that you can demonstrate your veto of the appointed group’s recommendation is seldom used, Braun suggests.

The CEO can use an approach similar to this one but without creating a formal appointed group. “When a grievance gets to my level, I generally consult with a small group of senior management staff before making a decision,” he said.

Braun also periodically explains some of the positive outcomes of a grievance (such as grievances that led to policy or practice changes). “People often think that if you file a formal grievance you will get fired or never receive another pay raise,” Braun said. “The CEO needs to be able to demonstrate some positive outcomes from employees who have used the procedure.”

To address this reprisal issue and further improve this policy, add some type of statement that retaliation/reprisal will not be tolerated against any person filing a formal grievance.


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  • Meet the Editor

    Jeff Stratton

    Jeff Stratton has edited Board & Administrator since 1992. As the Board Doctor, he has advised thousands of executive directors and board members on issues like prevention of
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