A Proposal: Should the CEO and Board Make Marriage-Like Promises to a Nonprofit?
It is always quite the process that leads to the day when the new executive director or CEO opens the door of the nonprofit that just hired them. An effective board has taken a lot of time to decide what precisely the board needs in their paid leader. They put out the call, reviewed lots of applications and resumes, narrowed down the applicants to a few and proceeded with as many as three or four interviews to find the best match. This “dating” process is part of the exercise that ultimately led to the day of the new executive’s entry.
For boards, many pundits offer this hiring process to be the most important job of the board. One can hope but knows it doesn’t happen as often, that the board conducted a similar dating process to identify and recruit best matches for the board — folks who would be passionate about the mission that reflects their own values.
Back to day one, a new executive, and hopefully every nonprofit employee, often consumes a large part of their first day of employment in the human resources office being onboarded to the proper processes and rules of the organization that, in current times, may also include a primer as to the employer’s cultural norms. The HR onboarding exercise is a necessary rite of passage for every employee, including the CEO.
But what if, for CEOs in particular, a bit more ritual was added to the first day? What if the CEO and at least two to three board members appointed to the task, were to introduce the CEO to the organization through a commitment ceremony, much like couples do — with an exchange of promises citing what each party promises to the other for growing a positive and productive relationship?
I am proposing that this ceremonial exchange would be the first step in recognizing that boards actively measure job performance but passively measure the nature of their relationship — generally a far bigger intangible reality but ever present for both the CEO and board.
So, toward this end, I have prepared a short list of the promises that could be exchanged between the board and CEO. First, the CEO could say:
As CEO of this nonprofit, I promise to:
- Work to fulfill the organization’s mission and work on behalf of those the mission calls me to serve, not myself
- Work in partnership with the board, understanding that the board is the owner of this nonprofit and has the rights and obligations to establish direction and discern progress
- Be transparent — always honestly and respectfully sharing with the board my thoughts and opinions
- Be timely and comprehensive in providing the programmatic and financial condition of the nonprofit
- Not communicate outside the organization until communicating inside the organization first
- Recognize that I am no better than any board member and no board member is better than me.
In turn, the board members could say:
As a board member of this nonprofit, I promise to:
- Work on behalf of those the mission calls me to serve, not myself
- Understand and fulfill the board’s fiduciary duties
- Plan strategically, set policy and evaluate progress
- Be responsible for being responsive and available
- Annually evaluate the board’s performance, in addition to annually evaluating the CEO’s performance
- Recruit, orient and connect members, being clear about culture and priorities
- Lead and advise, not manage
I acknowledge that these promises could use some work and should be developed to make them each nonprofit’s own. More important is that the board set a framework for the relationship it seeks to have with the CEO. A promise ceremony is one approach to ensure that the board and CEO fully understand what is expected of each. This — in addition to the performance contract — can, in my opinion, support what can often be a challenging experience for both parties.