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Executive Director
7/11/2014 12:00 AM

These strategies help the CEO manage the stresses of the top nonprofit position.

The executive director’s position isn’t a stressful one because she has to work for a volunteer board. It takes a toll because the top job in any nonprofit is a jack- or jill-of-all-trades position. As executive director, you’re responsible for everything: programs, board relations, planning, finances, fundraising, buildings and grounds. And the list goes on.

The recent article “Work-Life Demands Intense for CEOs at Nonprofits” ( covered this issue nicely.

Here are a number of tips from nonprofit executives that explain how they handle the stresses of the job:

Executive Director Marsha Modrell (Flagstaff, Ariz.) has 30-plus years in the executive’s position. “I do know there were times when I was able to manage the demands of the job better than others,” she said. Modrell said she juggles work-life demands most effectively when she:

  • Makes the commitment to do the best she can at any given time. “I realized that would have to be enough,” Modrell said.
  • Maintains a network of friends. It’s important to have people willing to listen to you whenever you feel you are up against a wall, she said.
  • Hires great people. “You have to employ key staff that understand and accept the responsibilities of their positions, and are willing to discuss difficult issues and disagree with each other and with me when it matters,” Modrell said.
  • Has other interests. Modrell said she has maintained outside interests and hobbies that she enjoys and that provide a diversion from the stresses that are part of working and living a life. For her, this includes walking, gardening and enjoying her grandchildren, she said.
  • Accepts what she can’t change. “It helps me to remember ‘It is what it is’ and I just need to stay focused and moving forward,” Modrell said. A healthy balance in your life is easier to maintain when you realize you can’t change everything that you think is incorrect or wrong in the system in which you work, she said.
Executive Director Jane Wear (Warsaw, Ind.) said that when her husband was ill and she was away from work for an extended period she had many “a-ha” moments about balancing work-life demands.

“The executive has got to delegate and develop responsible people she can delegate to,” she said. “We had a vice president who I had groomed. His job description required him to become interim CEO due to the absence of the CEO. He definitely kept the day-to-day items going here.”
  • Puts the tech down — and, again, delegates. “Many CEOs I come into contact with are taking calls and e-mails during meetings away from the office,” Wear said. “It is like they are irreplaceable and no one can make decisions in their absence.”
  • She said this can make the organization vulnerable if something happens to the CEO. “If we train others to do the important things, they will be able to handle things in our absence,” Wear said.

  • Has healthy priorities. “When my husband died, my priorities began to change in terms of work/life,” Wear said. “We can work our tails off, but in the end what does that mean if we have not devoted enough time to our spouse, our children or even getting some enjoyment from life? Many executives don’t get that.”
  • Organizes. “For me, the other item that really takes off the stress is keeping a list going,” Wear said. “I sleep better with a to-do list because it makes me less apt to forget something important. This makes me more productive at work.”
  • Plans ahead for vacations. “I don’t ever lose vacation time because of the ‘use it or lose it’ rule,” Wear said. She plans well in advance so she can work her schedule around her vacations.
Finally, a California executive director said she enjoys a little pure escapism by reaching for her go-to stress-relief moves.

“I’m fortunate because I don’t have too much trouble balancing work and home life... and I’m able to leave most of my stress at work when I leave. Having said that, there are times, like recently, when we were hit with one thing after another.”

“I listen to loud music and play video games,” she said. “For me, getting immersed in a virtual world where I can shoot down enemy soldiers and not get hurt is a great release.”

Her final tip: “Sometimes I’ll just go someplace where I can be alone and scream — that’s a great release too.”
Board Dysfunction
7/8/2014 12:00 AM

The dysfunctional board member can kill board teamwork. Here’s how to resolve the problem.

An Iowa executive director is sick and tired of what he calls “a truly obnoxious board member.”

The board member is consistently rude and aggressive toward other board members, staff who are attending meetings and the administrator. The board member also never lets anyone know if he will be attending a meeting or not. “When he does attend, he spends most of the meeting on his phone or iPad,” he said.

The obnoxious board member is a trial lawyer and doesn’t play well with others, and the board chair has had zero success in controlling him, the Iowa executive said.

“Our bylaws allow for board members to be removed for reasonable cause or unexcused absences at three consecutive meetings,” the administrator said. “The board member always misses two in a row and then attends the third meeting.”

“I need my board leadership to step up and handle the situation, but they are intimidated by the board member and what he might do as an attorney,” he said.

The solution to severe board dysfunction lies in a code of conduct or ethics with teeth. If the board has this in place, and supports the code, the full board is in a stronger position to handle its problem. At the end of the day, it’s the board’s job to rein in problem board members, not the executive director.

Sincerely, Jeff Stratton, Editor


Board relationship
6/30/2014 12:00 AM

Nonprofit Consultant Terrie Temkin (CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, Inc.) digs into the causes of executive director terminations and how to prevent them from occurring.

It’s the board’s job to hire and fire the executive director. When the firing comes, however, it really never happens in a vacuum. Both parties — the board and administrator — generally make mistakes along the way that lead to the executive being dismissed. Sometimes, there are even factors outside of the administrator’s control that cause a termination.

When one board decided to terminate a West Coast executive director, it unanimously voted to “make a change.” But dig a little deeper into what led to this administrator’s firing — peel away the layers — and you can see this board and administrator relationship was troubled right from the start. Here’s why:

  • The previous administrator fired a popular employee who headed up a popular program right before the board hired its new executive director.
  • Community members voiced their displeasure publicly about this firing, but the new administrator would not respond to their concerns.
  • The board gave its prior executive director a contract for consulting services during the first year the new executive was on the job.
  • As problems mounted, the board solicited opinions from employees and others about the administrator’s job performance.

Consultant Terrie Temkin (CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, Inc., Miami, Fla.) said that in an executive director firing like this one, there is plenty of blame to go around, from problems the new CEO could not control to her own missteps and the board’s mistakes. Here’s more:

Out of her control

When a new administrator follows a long-time popular director who carried a great deal of respect, problems aren’t uncommon, Temkin said. “Board members and other stakeholders can go around the new executive to see the previous director, and that is unfair to the current executive,” she said.

That’s a problem because the new administrator can’t build her own following, reputation or style when she is always living in the shadow of someone who held the job for years, Temkin said.

Another issue arises when the new executive enters a small, tight-knit community. “It’s hard for a newcomer to break in when everyone knows everyone else so well,” Temkin said.

Finally, who knows what information the administrator was provided upon her hiring? Was the board clear about the direction it sought for the organization? The previous executive director had fired an employee for a reason and the new executive became the collateral damage as that drama continued to play out. “There had to be an uproar when the long-time staff member was fired,” Temkin said. It’s quite possible the board told its new administrator to head in a new direction programmatically, and when that didn’t work well, the ax fell on the new CEO, Temkin said.

The executive’s missteps

“The first rule of crisis communication is to get out in front of a problem,” said Temkin. You need to own the crisis before the media begins to frame it in its own ways, she said.

In the case of this terminated executive, she blamed the media for reporting on the controversy instead of owning the problem. “Blaming the media is a great way to make enemies, especially in a small community,” Temkin said. “That’s a big misstep.”

When a hiring goes bad and ends in the executive director’s firing, the question of due diligence on the executive’s part always comes up too. The administrator needs to learn when seeking a new job, for example, if the board has a history of burning through executive directors quickly, Temkin said.

When taking a new position, you have to make learning the new organization’s culture and building allies your first priority, Temkin said. “Whenever you move into a new job, even if you know people in the organization, you need to learn the organization’s culture,” she said.

If you take a position where you are inheriting a problem like the termination of a long-time employee and popular program, fix that issue as soon as possible, Temkin said. “You need to do something to make amends,” she said.

Always communicate fully with the board. If a media coverage problem develops and your board starts getting phone calls before hearing from you, you’ve failed as a communicator. “If your board gets blindsided by the community, their first reaction is going to be ‘We don’t want to take the blame,’” Temkin said.

The board blew it too

When a long-time administrator retires, the board has a responsibility to make a well-informed hire. “The board needs to determine what direction the organization should go and what type of executive director they need to make that happen,” Temkin said.

Mistakes in hiring at the top are less likely to happen when the board assesses what its previous administrator did well and not so well, what direction the board wants to go in the future and what qualities the board is seeking in the person to get the organization to where it wants to be, Temkin said.

In the case of this executive’s termination, the board didn’t appear to understand its mission and programs well, along with the intensity of the community’s feelings about the popular program. “If the board did, perhaps they would have given more direction to the new executive at the beginning,” Temkin said.

It’s the board’s responsibility to direct and coach a new executive. “When the board hires someone new, it needs to communicate the direction the board wants to go in the first place,” Temkin said.

Finally, if you inherit a position where the previous administrator will continue working as a consultant, boundaries need to be placed on that involvement, Temkin said. “In this case, the previous administrator is left standing and the new one isn’t,” she said.

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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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