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The Job of the Nonprofit CEO

November 3, 2014

BoardSource, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the public good by building exceptional nonprofit boards and inspiring board service, has recently published a book by Rick Moyers called The Nonprofit Chief Executive's Ten Basic Responsibilities. We'll be exploring those responsibilities, and others, over the course of this month.

In the introduction, Moyers highlights the relationship between boards and chief executive officers, outlining five models that have evolved over time. According to Moyers, these models offer competing and sometimes contradictory ideas about the role of the chief executive officer and how executives and board members should interact.

Briefly, these five models are:

  • Strong board, subordinate executive. This somewhat dated model suggests that the board's role is to supervise and control the executive in much the same way that any manager supervises a subordinate (well, at least historically). The executive remains somewhat passive, looking to the board for leadership and direction. The board is likely to be involved in all major decisions, and the chief executive often believes that they do not have much of a role in changing the situation.
  • Strong executive, ornamental board. The opposite of the first model mentioned above, this model describes an organization with a talented and charismatic chief executive who has a clear vision for the organization, and a board that is either passive or under the direct control of the CEO. The executive wields absolute power, and the board is seldom used to its full potential as an asset.
  • Equal partners. Perhaps the least controversial, but most difficult to obtain, this model advocates a board and executive who work collaboratively to achieve common goals. Inherent in this model are flexibility and cooperation, but it also contains opportunity for disagreement and confusion.
  • Partners with clear boundaries. Some have argued that this model may sacrifice flexibility for clarity, but the advantage of this model is to set limitations on the roles of both the board and chief executive so that each is clear about what the executive is allowed to do or not do.
  • Servant-leaders. This servant-leadership model encourages collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power by focusing on how best to serve communities rather than focusing on who's in charge of the organization.

While each of these models may have merit, Moyers argues that none of them offers a complete view of the role of the chief executive in any nonprofit organization. Instead boards often fall back on clichés or broad statements of the role of their chief executive, especially when trying to hire one, and many executives are left with unrealistic expectations or confusion about what their jobs really entail. In an effort to bring clarity to this often ambiguous situation, Moyers offers succinct and helpful descriptions of the ten basic responsibilities of an organization's leader.

The first and foremost is a commitment to the mission of the organization and a thorough understanding of the organization's mission, programs and the context in which it operates.

Setting the organization's mission is of course the role of the board of directors. But, chief executives are responsible for keeping the mission in the forefront of the organization's activities and guarding against "mission creep" or "mission drift" -- the gradual accumulation of projects and initiatives that don't directly support the mission of the organization.

In the coming weeks, we'll explore the other major roles of the chief executive officer as outlined in Moyer's book and other sources. If you have a question or comment, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and let's start a conversation there.

Next week: Leading the Organization


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