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Board/staff contact
8/28/2015 12:00 AM

In this Board & Administrator article, Executive Director Rod Braun (Pella, Iowa) recommends the full board determine how to proceed when a board member and employee are in a relationship.

Board/staff roles can blur in a hurry for the nonprofit executive when he finds out one of his board members is dating an employee and the organization has no fraternization policy. For the CEO, the important point to remember about a situation like this is your board has to make the call on how to proceed.

Executive Director Rod Braun (Pella, Iowa; said his organization has no policy on board/staff fraternization. Besides, Braun said, a fraternization policy could create some difficult board recruitment challenges in a small community.

However, screening for this type of issue does take place.

“Before we ask our ‘at-large’ committee members to stand for election to the board of directors, we do run their names past our senior management staff and ask the board candidates to declare any potential conflicts of interest,” Braun said.

This provides one level of screening for any personal relationship conflict. However, if a relationship were to begin after the person came on the board, the organization’s current processes would not catch that, he said.

“A challenge in small communities is that it can really limit the pool of potential governance members if they cannot be related to, or in a relationship with, employees of the organization,” Braun said.

If a board/staff member relationship arises at your organization and the board doesn’t have a fraternization policy, be careful in how you proceed.

“If that happened here, I think my position would be that one of them has to resign but I would want the board to make the call and not me,” Braun said.

Succession planning
8/21/2015 12:00 AM

Executive Director Rod Braun (Pella, Iowa) said the CEO must think strategically about three issues as he plans his exit from the nonprofit.

Succession planning deserves your time and effort, because when you depart, you want a smooth transition to the new CEO to ensure the organization keeps humming along.

Executive Director Rod Braun (Pella, Iowa; has important points to make about succession planning, starting with the myth some boards employ to avoid it.

  1. Don’t buy the board’s “this is too expensive” argument. “Some boards argue they can’t afford succession planning,” Braun said. They wait until the retiring CEO is a few months from leaving and then have a very brief mentoring period, he said.
  2. “I don’t consider that succession planning,” Braun said. “By design, our succession planning makes the current associate director the CEO when I retire. If he stays until I retire, he will have 14 years of service—and will have immediate credibility and trust.”

    If the board waits until the last minute, there is no way the new person can have the gravitas he or she needs, Braun said. “In my opinion, they are almost being set up to fail,” he said. “The argument heard in our field for not having an associate director position is that the organization simply can’t afford it.”

    Braun said his organization could not afford such a staff position until annual revenues approached $6 million.

  3. Tackle the tough issues before you leave. “If a tough call needs to be made, I would suggest making it at least three to six months before departing so that the CEO who is leaving can manage any fallout, not the new person,” Braun said.
  4. In a similar vein, Braun has quarterly discussions with his successor about issues he can tackle in the next four years rather than leaving them to him. “I want to do everything I can to make my successor successful,” he said.

  5. Don’t “consult” with the board once you have retired. If the board wants to hire you as a consultant as your successor gets up to speed, pass on the offer, Braun said. “Seldom have I seen such an arrangement turn out well,” he said. “In fact, as an incoming CEO, I would probably decline the job offer if such an arrangement was in place.”
  6. The board should only supervise the incoming CEO and if the CEO wants to pay an hourly fee for consulting services with the former CEO, that should be his call and not the board’s, Braun said.

    “I have seen way too many train wrecks when former CEOs are kept on the payroll,” Braun said. The reason a board will keep a former CEO around is often due to contacts and relationships with key donors, he said.

    “I am sure some board members here will want to keep me on to manage some of those key donors when I retire, but I encourage donor loyalty to the mission of the organization, not the CEO,” Braun said. “I have taken the time to have the associate director, my successor, get to know key donors.”

Board and Staff Contact
8/4/2015 12:00 AM

Nonprofit executive Sonia Handforth-Kome explains how to prevent back channels of communication between your employees and the board in this B&A feature.

The firing came right out of the blue for one Canadian executive director: “I was fired without warning last January after 15 years here because of financial stress freaking out our employees,” she said.

And the reason is all too familiar: “My employees went behind my back to the board, and I believe that I ended up taking the blame for the long recession,” she said.

For any experienced nonprofit executive, the “without warning” piece of this dismissal should raise red flags. “It points to an almost total failure by the CEO to pick up on the human dynamics of his or her organization or to the CEO choosing not to—or not knowing how to—appropriately address those issues,” said nonprofit executive and consultant Sonia Handforth-Kome (Seattle, Wash.,

“What happened to the trust and communication between the CEO and the staff? Was the CEO aware of the staff members’ concerns? What did the CEO do to hear and address the concerns? If he or she was not aware, why not?” Handforth-Kome asked.

Point: The administrator must be able to take the temperature of his staff on a regular basis to maintain trust.

At all times, but especially in times of hardship or organizational or environmental stress, the CEO must remain alert and empathic to the concerns of staff members, she said.

One suggestion: Hold “fishbowl” sessions with staff members, asking employees to voice their concerns, opinions and solutions, Handforth-Kome said.

“This is a strategy my current organization uses. We literally invite employees to put their questions on a slip of paper and drop those slips into a fishbowl,” she said. The CEO pulls questions out randomly and starts conversations around the questions, she said.

The point is that employees need a way to safely ask “impertinent” questions—questions that matter to them—and then use this to get a conversation started and receive an explanation around their area of concern, Handforth-Kome said.

To build trust, the executive should also involve his staff regularly in planning and problem solving, she said. “This creates a robust and innovative environment, where staff members feel heard and valued,” Handforth-Kome said.

An example: “In my previous organization, we experienced poor financial performance for a variety of reasons, most of which were not in the organization’s control—funding cuts, policy shifts, insurance premium increases,” she said.

Facing unacceptable losses for the coming year, during the budgeting period, every staff member was shown the financial picture of the organization, she said. “We asked each employee if they would prefer to freeze raises, decrease benefits or reduce the number of budgeted positions for the coming fiscal year,” Handforth-Kome said.

The staff chose to freeze raises, and that was the strategy used in the budget to hold the line on losses, she said. “Managers worked with staff to control expenses and increase revenues,” Handforth-Kome said. “Staff members understood what was at stake. By the end of the fiscal year, finances had recovered sufficiently that all staff received a bonus, and the organization was able to budget raises for the next fiscal year.”

Involving employees in its problem solving has paid off well for that organization. “Since that time (about four years ago), the organization has grown by over 25% and is in excellent financial shape,” she said.

The second part of any issue where the board springs a surprise is: What happened to the board’s trust and communication with the CEO?

In a trusting relationship, Handforth-Kome said this is how the board handles back channels of communication with employees: If the CEO is maintaining appropriate communication with the board, then when a staff member or staff members go around the CEO to the board for reasons that do not have to do with suspected fraud or abuse, the board member(s) who received the contact(s) should immediately let the CEO know what has happened, who has contacted them and why.

“They should be able to trust that the CEO will respond fairly, will be able to hear the staff member’s concerns and should be able to address those concerns appropriately,” she said. “The board members should not guarantee confidentiality to the employee(s), but should let the employee(s) know that their concerns will be addressed by the CEO, as is appropriate.”

The board’s role then becomes ensuring that the CEO is attending to the staff issue, and to support the CEO in his or her efforts to address the staff member’s concerns, Handforth-Kome said. “If there is a grievance policy—and there should be a grievance policy—then board members who have been approached by staff members can direct those staff members to that policy,” she said.

Preventing board/CEO relationship breakdowns that involve employees rests on the executive director’s abilities as a communicator, Handforth-Kome said.

“The CEO needs to be skilled at open communication with both board members and staff members,” she said. “If the CEO is defensive, demonstrating stress or jumping too quickly to solutions, staff members will feel shut down and unheard.”

If the CEO is not openly discussing issues and concerns with the board, along with proposed strategies, the board will lose confidence in the CEO, Handforth-Kome said.

Then, the board starts making assumptions about what is “really” going on, she said. “This is particularly difficult for the CEO in times of stress, since the CEO must manage his or her own issues while maintaining a higher level of openness and communication with all stakeholders. It can be very exhausting for the CEO,” Handforth-Kome said.

3/27/2015 12:00 AM

This chart from Board & Administrator Editor Jeff Stratton provides guidance on roles for the board and staff.

1/9/2015 12:00 AM

This board evaluation instrument from Board & Administrator Editor Jeff Stratton is a tool the CEO can use to see how well the board is set up to govern effectively.

12/19/2014 12:00 AM

Executive Director Susan Levy assists her board committee chairs by helping them develop a Chart of Work outlining the committee’s responsibilities for the year.


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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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