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The Nonprofit CEO: Ensuring Accountability and Leadership

November 24, 2014

In this, the last of a four-part series on the job of the nonprofit CEO, we explore three remaining responsibilities of the chief executive officer: ensuring accountability, serving as an advocate and developing future leadership.

The chief executive officer of any organization also has to be the chief compliance officer and the chief accountability officer. Like it or not, the buck stops with the CEO, and any irregularities and illegalities will become the primary responsibility of the chief executive officer.

Although the board bears the overall responsibility for ensuring ethics and accountability, the board isn't really able to do its job without the input and cooperation of the CEO. Accordingly, their fates are inextricably linked. Questions of honesty, confidentiality, equity, due process, conflicting interests and nepotism all arise frequently in nonprofit organizations, and according to Moyers, too few boards have real, forthright discussions about these issues. So, it is often left to the nonprofit CEO to monitor and manage these potentially thorny issues.

In his book, The Nonprofit Chief Executive's Ten Basic Responsibilities, Rick Moyers suggests four areas where the nonprofit CEO might ask for guidance from the board:

  • Practices and behaviors that are illegal and will not be tolerated under any circumstances
  • Problems outside the organization that have the potential to damage the organization, such as criminal charges against a key employee or board member.
  • Issues within the organization, such as nepotism or questionable expenditures that, while not illegal, might trigger problems or cause others to question the organization's integrity.
  • Guidelines about behavior that relate to the organization's core values.

Closely connected to these issues is the responsibility of the nonprofit CEO to be the public face of the organization and to build relationships with individuals and institutions - including donors, policymakers and the media. Understanding the laws that govern transparency, access to information, lobbying, and involvement in political campaigns are all required for the modern nonprofit chief executive.

It's also important to be clear about who speaks for the organization - especially in times of crisis - and what parameters might exist for taking a position on a legislative or public policy issue.

Finally, CEOs are responsible for ensuring that the organization is able to attract, train and retain future leaders of the organization from both a board and staff perspective. And, a good CEO has a succession plan for both himself or herself and the senior staff members. The proverbial "what happens if the CEO gets hit by a truck?" should guide the organization's succession planning - both short-term and long-term.

Moyers suggests the simple steps of "writing things down" and "creating a transition plan" as ways to decrease dependency on one individual, but the responsibility of developing future leaders goes well beyond these simple steps. Future leaders require nurturing, training, support, encouragement, challenge and opportunities to succeed.

That wraps up our month-long discussion of the responsibilities of nonprofit chief executive officers. I recommend reading Rick Moyer's instructive book on the topic in more depth. It's available from BoardSource.

If you have a question or comment, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there.

Next month: Giving and Getting


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