Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

July 18, 2011

Boards fail to support executive directors

By Todd Cohen

Two in three executive directors are expected to leave their nonprofits over the next five years, and a lot of the blame goes to their boards of directors.

Executive directors have tough jobs, trying to manage organizations that continually struggle to do more with less and that must learn to cope with shrinking resources and rising demand for services in a battered economy.

Yet executive directors get precious little support from their boards, which seem to have no idea what their job is, how their organizations operate, or the challenges their staffs face and the support they need.

A new report from CompassPoint Nonprofit Services in San Francisco and the Meyer Foundation in Washington, D.C., says underperforming boards are a key cause of the expected mass exit of executive directors.

New executive directors, for example, are disillusioned “with what boards actually contribute to strategy, resources and personal support along executives’ steep learning curves,” the report says.

Boards also seem to see executive transition, it says, “as ending with the hire, when in fact leaders – nearly all of whom are in the role for the first time – need intentional support and development as they build efficacy in the executive role.”

Nonprofit boards are the leaders of their organizations, and they need to start acting like leaders.

They should be investing time on a regular basis to better understand their responsibilities and the mission and needs of the organization.

They should be deeply involved in thinking ahead for the organization, setting its mission, and making sure it is sticking to that mission in its day-to-day work.

Instead of devoting their meetings to listening to reports from the staff, and then approving them without little if any scrutiny, boards should be focusing on the big issues facing the organization, and thinking about ways they can help the staff address those issues.

And boards should be actively and continually engaged in helping the organization secure the resources it needs, both through their own giving and through the connections they can make for the organizations to prospective donors.

Executive directors and their boards should be working closely together, and looking for ways to get the professional development they need to fulfill their respective responsibilities.

Boards are the leaders of their nonprofits and they need to do a better job leading if they want to keep their executive directors.


  • At 12:26 PM, Blogger Michael G, MSW said…


    This is most sadly true. Role confusion among board members, and inappropriate board member priorities, will wear down the most skilled professional staff leaders. With the departure of these staff leaders over the next two years, their valuable experience, and organizatioinal knowledge, is also leaving.

    As important, there will also be the lost relationships with donors, and the absence of comumnity engagement efforts (in their particular sector of the NP business) that have been cultivated over the years, uunder their leadership.


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