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Chaos in the organization – Part 1: 6 things nonprofit boards should not do

Chaos in the organization – Part 1: 6 things nonprofit boards should not do

June 5, 2024
Len Romano

As a former nonprofit CEO and with personal experience as a board member, there are things that boards (and, yes, CEOs) could do to cause chaos in the organization. 

Part one of this two-part series is focused on boards; part 2 will focus on CEOs.

Here are the top six things boards (and board members) must avoid so the organization can focus on its mission:

1. Ignoring the top fiduciary role: personal giving at a leadership level in both annual and capital campaigns. 

Here is the best way to avoid this: The board job description must define what leadership level giving is – and when potential board members are recruited it must be made clear at the outset. You can read more about this in our post, “Leadership Level Giving for Board Members: Who gets a pass?”.

2. Not enforcing term limits. People get tired and burned out. This is an opportunity to refresh the board, bring in new individuals with diverse perspectives and enrich the expertise of the board.

Here are the best ways to avoid this: 

  • Update your bylaws with realistic term limits.
  • Have an active board development committee that is planning for future vacancies and board gaps.
  • Create an advisory council for board members who rotate off.

3. The board chair (chief visionary officer) isn’t a partner with the CEO. One key role of the CVO is to serve as a sounding board for the CEO. As the saying goes, it is lonely at the top – and this relationship is critical for emotional and strategic support.

The best way to avoid this is the monthly one-to-one meeting between the two to discuss upcoming board agendas, successes and challenges.

4. Not using appropriate performance standards for the CEO. This is one board responsibility that causes major anxiety for both boards and CEOs simply because most volunteers don’t have experience conducting CEO performance assessments.

Understanding that CEO performance is quite different from other types of positions as CEOs rely on the organization structure for their success, here are the recommended big-picture performance areas: 

  • Promoting the vision of the organization internally and externally.
  • Strategic plan metrics.
  • Growing the asset base.
  • Funding the mission.
  • Positive culture.

Always remember that the CEO operates in a dynamic internal/external environment and should participate in creating customized focus areas along with the board – and the board should also have its unique performance plan and assessment!

5. Conducting meetings without the CEO’s knowledge. No exceptions unless there has been a major performance breach that needs to be discussed! Board meetings (or board member side meetings) – except for the time when the CEO appraisal committee has its meeting – usually are a major red flag indicating chaos in the organization.

6. Getting involved in operations. The CEO is responsible for the staff of the organization who have been hired because of their expertise. Boards have the fiduciary role (the balance sheet) of the organization and delegate operations and programs to the CEO, who works with the staff. The board’s role includes policy, working with the CEO on strategy and funding the mission of the organization.

The best way to ensure that everyone has a voice in the direction of the organization is to ensure that board members are actively participating in committees, which is where the work of the board happens.

At Lighthouse Counsel, we can create a customized engagement to help your organization through any of these issues, including CEO or board chair mentoring, strategic plans that are integrated into performance standards, executive search, board development planning, fundraising readiness and campaigns.

Stay tuned for Part 2: 6 things a nonprofit CEO can do to cause chaos.


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.