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Chaos in the Nonprofit Organization – Part 2: 6 things CEOs should not do

Chaos in the Nonprofit Organization – Part 2: 6 things CEOs should not do

June 10, 2024
Len Romano

In Part 1 of “Chaos in the Nonprofit Organization,” we listed six things nonprofit boards or board members must avoid. Here is a quick summary:

  1. Ignoring the top fiduciary role: personal giving at a leadership level in both annual and capital campaigns. 
  2. Not enforcing term limits. 
  3. The board chair (CVO) trying to be a partner with the CEO. 
  4. Not using appropriate performance standards for the CEO. 
  5. Conducting meetings without the CEO’s knowledge. 
  6. Getting involved in operations. 

Now we turn the focus to six things that CEOs should avoid doing – and believe me, as a former CEO I was guilty of a few of these!

  1. Constantly surprising the board. This is caused by two key things – not communicating regularly with the board and being out of sync with the board’s understanding of priorities.

    There are a few tactics a CEO can use to avoid the board feeling like “there is always something happening that we didn’t know about.”
  • The first tactic is to provide regular updates (at least monthly) to the board about how things are going, key accomplishments and the CEO’s thoughts about the organization’s focus. One tool I used was the “Two Minute Update,” a simple-to-read email that was produced monthly. To have a better impact and be more personal, the update can be sent by video message. This is also something that the entire workforce should receive.
  • The second tactic is to communicate in person or by phone regularly with the board chair to get feedback. Remember, one of the key roles of the chair is to be the CEO’s sounding board.
  1. A lack of focus on board development. This was noted in part one, and it holds true for CEOs as well as for board members. This is the case as the CEO is the face of the organization to the external world and will have opportunities to identify potential board members.

    The CEO must be part of the board development team as he/she is the most knowledgeable about the committee gaps, challenges, opportunities and threats of the organization. And the CEO’s success is highly dependent on the success of the board.
  1. The CEO moves faster than the board can handle. This was my biggest issue as a CEO mostly because I was attracted to turnaround situations where time was of the essence. 

    This issue comes down to having a mutual understanding of the priorities – both from the board’s perspective and the CEO’s. Normally, during the interview process, there is the opportunity to clarify how much change or new direction the board has a stomach for. 

    The recommendation for both selection committees and CEO candidates is that this issue must be discussed and agreed upon before selecting a candidate/accepting the position. Be aware of this one caveat: Most search committees respond positively to the idea of moving fast, but after the hire is made, there is always some hesitation among other board members.

    As mentioned earlier, ongoing communication and linking priorities to the mission and strategy of the organization are ways to avoid this pitfall. The bottom line is that the CEO needs to have the patience to trust the process.
  1. Not spending enough time nurturing every board member. The CEO’s job is to motivate and create passion among the board members. Remember, depending on the number of board and committee meetings, board members have limited exposure to the organization. They have jobs, personal lives and other responsibilities, so they are not thinking about their board role every day. Working with a board is a full-time job, and the CEO’s best strategy is to figure out how to engage each individual.
  1. Bringing problems to the board. This is an easy one – the CEO’s job (and the staff’s) is to be problem solvers! It is no different from working with the staff to bring solutions – otherwise they are not needed. Boards feel the same way about CEOs who present problems without solutions. This is not to say that the board should not be aware of the challenges or threats that the organization is facing. These must be brought to their attention but with the CEO’s options for solving the issues.

    And here is a great way to involve the board: Call on those members who have technical expertise about the issue to use them as a sounding board to help decide the best alternative to pursue. 
  1. Failure to provide the 2 Ms – mission stories and metrics about outcomes.

    This goes back to nurturing and communicating with the board. (Notice a repeating message?) Board members agree to serve because they want to make a difference in the world. Providing the board with the organization’s stories and the metrics about outcomes will feed their desire. 

    Here are a few things I have implemented that CEOs can consider:
  • Bring board members in groups or one-on-one to see the organization’s programs in action and, when allowable, interact with the participants.
  • Have board members volunteer in the program.
  • Conduct board meetings at program locations.
  • Involve board members in the scholarship or financial aid program approval process.
  • Conduct a board training on outcomes vs. outputs (a topic for another time). 
  • Have the board discuss what data should be collected to prove that the organization is making a difference in the lives of others.

My final thought: Sometimes it is easy for staff to say, “Our board is not engaged.” The best way to avoid a “disengaged” board is to understand that the CEO must focus on this so that the organization has a multiplier force to spread its mission!


Len Romano

Len Romano has 40 years of experience as a leader, helping nonprofits achieve their potential. He has held leadership roles including vice president of operations at YMCA of Greater St. Louis, chief operating officer at YMCA of Greater Boston, and chief executive officer at the Denver Metropolitan YMCA, YMCA of Greater Omaha and Christian City in Union City, Georgia. Most recently, Len has provided advisory services to nonprofit executives and boards in education, community service, the arts, youth-serving agencies, housing, social justice, health care and membership associations. He serves as a mentor for students at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and for SCORE as a certified business mentor and onboarding coach for new mentors. Len holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, a master’s of degree in business administration from Northeastern University and a master’s of divinity degree from Louisiana Baptist University and Theological Seminary.