Nonprofit Leadership and Governance

Nonprofit leadership motivation runs from social peer pressure and resume enhancement to sincere mission commitment. Leadership styles range from laissez-faire hyper-democratic and “wind-sock” decision-making to autocratic, with the best style integrating elements of both.

With the closure of Marlboro College’s Nonprofit Management Program, would-be leaders in the nonprofit sector have two options: The Snelling Leadership Institute and The Lake Champlain Chamber’s Leadership Champlain program, both of which have done terrific work preparing new leaders for all three sectors: government, business, and nonprofit.

The type and caliber of leadership governing boards choose is integral to the progress we make and to our success as a community of interest, of whatever type. Yet, so often we choose someone with whom we’d “rather have a beer” rather than one who will challenge us to be better.

Far more dangerous, however, I’ve watched as naive boards continue to support dysfunctional leadership disconnected to mission – until they don’t.

Board governance is surprisingly simple. Board trustees assume basic obligations and liabilities on behalf of an organization’s mission. Arguably, the most important one is to hire, compensate, review the performance of, and fire, when necessary, its executive director (ED).

All-too-often, the performance review component is an afterthought, eventuating in either warm-fuzzies or confrontation reluctance. Properly understood and managed, it need be neither. Performance review – in all sectors – is better understood as  a continuous improvement process rather than an annual “come-to-Jesus” meeting.

Some boards have a pro-forma executive session at every meeting with the express purpose of discussing executive performance. In my own experience as a chair, it’s understood that I will tell the ED everything that was said about them, positive and negative, but not by whom. A good leader seeks continuous feedback and welcomes the opinions of her or his colleagues. If there are no comments the session ends in 30 seconds. The fact that it’s pro forma raises no alarms for the ED.

Every board organization should oversee an annual performance review, requiring the ED to write a self-review for comparison to the one elicited from the leadership team, mission constituents, and trustees.

Too often boards dread the process, especially if the ED is not delivering on mission. So trustees put it off until the situation deteriorates to a point where the board simply tries to rationalize termination. Not only does this create a legal liability, it’s intrinsically unfair to a promising ED.

In my fifty years participating in and observing leadership in Vermont’s $6.8B nonprofit community, comprised of 6000 registered non-profits, I’ve seen two types of executive leaders: maintainers and change-agents. The ideal ED combines elements of both, as change is a continuum and must be reflected in mission and delivery on mission. But too often, when an organization is failing to deliver on mission, change agents are drafted to refocus, repurpose, and repopulate the leadership team, only to then face a simmering rebellion from staff and trustees who feel threatened by change.

There are probably 250 vital and high-performing non-profits operating in Vermont or in its communities. Reflecting change, many have recently undergone significant change in mission focus, culture, and leadership: Vt Public Radio, VT-PBS, The Flynn Theater, The VT Arts Council, The VT Humanities Council, The YMCA, Preservation Trust of VT, UVM, United Way of N.W. VT, The Lund Home, and others. These changes and repositioning are normal but their success will be predicated on Board alignment and its support of change.

Too often changes sought in an organization generate friction and the very person chosen to lead the change then becomes the target of those feeling the pain of that change. If the board is not aligned on the need for change and does not rise to support the change-maker, the organization founders.

Leadership is not about power as many imagine, but rather about emotional  intelligence, humility, understanding how to derive consensus, and then, action and accountability.

The impact of our best nonprofits on Vermonters’ quality of life, – whether in environment, education, social safety net, inclusive culture, or health care – demands that we continue to train new leaders and board members on their responsibilities.