2 Keys to Improving Nonprofit Leadership
There are some fantastic leaders in our nonprofit arena—CEOs, chief development officers and beyond. There are also some leaders who are underperforming and too often get passed from organization to organization.
The quality of leadership in the nonprofit sector and the fundraising profession reflects on all of us. It impacts our ability to insist on proven best practices and other high standards that our organizations deserve.
Recently, I was visiting with a retired nonprofit CEO. He had successfully led two major nonprofits in different parts of the country. He retired, in part, because he was frustrated. He was frustrated over the quality of leaders in the profession and the systems of relationships that passed bad leaders on—including the failure of organizations to do sufficient background checks and other research. His summary: No one checks references and few organizations spend enough time vetting and investing in leaders.
I must agree; in many ways, we are near a crisis in leadership that must be addressed by higher standards. There are two basics that would go a long way: checking references and being wary of candidates who are seeking to leave a job after a short tenure.
I was amazed recently when I learned that the CEO of a major national association was hired without reference checks from any of the board chairs he reported to while CEO of his previous organization.
Failure to check references is an amateur mistake. Too often nonprofits—from small organizations to major educational institutions—are either in a hurry or rely on a search consultant. There are amazing search consultants, but there are some who do not hesitate to pass along friends and past clients, even if they have been less than successful.
In too many nonprofit sectors there are “good old boy systems” that pass along failed CEOs. In one sector, I know of several CEOs who nearly bankrupted their previous organizations by highly leveraging them, and they were hired by new organizations (obviously without a high degree of due diligence). In one instance, they again have put their organization in financial risk to the degree that a bank is overseeing their finances. However, the board has yet to act and the CEO remains.
In the same sector, a CEO was fired when his poor leadership led to financial challenges and a dysfunctional culture. While this became widely known, he has since been hired by the national organization to … yes, consult local affiliates. If you are serving on a search committee, push to find details on background checks and reference checks and look at secondary paths to secure insight, beyond references provided by the candidates. If the position is a CEO, ask detailed questions about a multi-year financial performance of the organization and look to IRS form 990s and other sources for validation.
Don’t Even Consider Job Hopping Candidates
Unfortunately, the average tenure in fundraising is around two years—typically for lower level positions. However, I have seen major institutions hire a chief development officer with 20 plus years of experience when they have been at their last two positions less than three years (a senior level position!). It typically takes that long to build a major gift relationship and, at least, that long to make a real impact at a major institution. In another example, the candidate hired had already been relieved of their senior position and was “parked” in the president’s office.
If you are hiring a mid- to senior-level position, insist that candidates have been at their last position at least five years. A short tenure once in a career can be explained, but a pattern is typically a red flag.
Check references, and don’t encourage or accept short tenured professionals—if they left their last job after just a few years, what gives you faith they’ll commit longer to you?
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.