Pink Slip to Nonprofit Board Members: "You're Fired!"

What if nonprofit board members could be fired? I don’t mean simply not renewing their terms, I’m talking about “You’re fired.”

Most of us sign up to be nonprofit board members because we genuinely want to make a difference for a mission and to work around people that inspire us. We agree to govern, to present an accountable face to our charities. Like it or not, we have to try to help raise money.

Yelling you’re fired may work for TV bombast, but in the real world such phrases are the antithesis of success, either in the office or the board room.

Still, there’s a big little secret about our do-good sector festering just beneath the surface: lots of us question whether our system of nonprofit board governance works.


Board members are volunteers who, by design, leave their board room after a meeting and go back to their lives. But running a nonprofit means managing a business—a nonprofit business, yes, but a business nonetheless. This work is trickier and more demanding than most imagine. When confronted by critical policy decisions, any poor timing or slow responsiveness on the part of board leadership can break an operation’s back. Board strategic and future budget planning are critical for staff leadership to engage with community partners, manage staff, and assure credible fundraising and a sound financial future. When faced by critical policy decisions, misplaced board talents, expertise, and intentions that don’t necessarily translate to the nonprofit’s culture and needs can jam up an organization’s gears: Just because it works in government or the business sector doesn’t translate as success in the nonprofit world. And when alarms start sounding, staff entrenched in the mission may be wrongly ignored by their board, or misunderstood, or foolishly sidelined. It can be enough to make even the most mild-mannered executives want to scream at that board: “You’re fired!”

Libraries of information have been written about nonprofit boards, but one concept, in my experience, sets the tone for success. It’s about power, and the management of that power, between the board and the staff.

Successful nonprofits poised to compete for resources and credibility have boards that manage their power wisely. It can be as tricky as teaching an elephant to dance—one who knows exactly how to swing his weight around and to avoid stepping on toes. When that elephant is in the room and its power dances adeptly with staff leadership, magic happens.

Unfortunately, staff executive leadership is often immobilized to manage effectively up to that board power. Nothing is said or heard, but poor decisions are made. Good nonprofits can collapse easily and quickly.

I’ll be talking about dancing with the elephant next time—both leading and following—and about power ratios. What do you believe is the effective balance-of-power ratio between the board and the executive staff leadership of a successful nonprofit? Leave me a comment to let me know!

There are no wrong answers, no pink slips. What do you think?




























Nonprofit Leaders: How Do You Manage Idealists?

My first nonprofit job was for a progressive organization with a progressive board in a progressive community. But all that progressiveness didn’t prevent the nonprofit employees from unionizing. It all began when the CEO fired a critical staff member. The rest of the staff decided the firing was an abuse of power symptomatic of her leadership, so they took matters into their own hands. Within one year the employees had voted in a union.

The unionization process made a lasting impression on me. But it still hadn’t sunk in how tricky managing a dedicated nonprofit team could be. I finally learned that lesson when I saw a key staff person break into tears thanks to persistent abuse by the founding CEO of another nonprofit. “Mary,” she told me, “we’re idealists and we expect nonprofits to be managed better.”

So, if nonprofit staff tends to be idealistic—and they will be—they probably have a low tolerance for an external charitable mission that feels contradictory to their workplace values. Your nonprofit might be doing good for others, but that good has to start within the organization. As the business world well knows, if the leadership takes good care of the team, the team will take good care of the customers.

This is five times as true in the nonprofit world. If you don’t listen to the staff before messing with the mission, you’re headed for big trouble. If you find yourself creating a workplace out of sync with your lofty mission, then rest assured a crisis is brewing. Make unfulfilled promises and your noble nonprofit can implode overnight.

And don’t assume that disenchanted staff members will simply flee; these impassioned employees will frequently fight back to protect what they believe is the way the mission was intended to be served. Like it or not, believe me or not, the staff has the strongest ownership of the mission. Not the Board, not the CEO.

How do you manage it? First, assume it’s a gift to have a strong, opinionated and idealistic staff team. These are the next steps:

1.       Manage that team consistently with transparent leadership that builds open, respectful, and safe communication. This requires trust, team building, and accountability to one another. Tolerate a level of conflict and manage that conflict.

2.       Be honest with staff. Don’t mislead them by implying they’ll always have input on decisions—or that they’ll always know every detail. Someone has to make big decisions and those decisions won’t always be popular.

3.       Work with the leadership team to assure the best nonprofit human resources practices are in place, known to staff, and implemented.

4.       Monitor staff turnover and seek out an annual cultural measurement tool that confidentially assesses the staff’s morale. Self-reports should score high on universal commitment to the mission, integrity, learning, and listening. Discuss the results with staff—and possibly the Board.

5.       If you’re the top staff executive, insist the Board evaluate you annually, including an occasional 360 review. Leaders need feedback too! When receiving feedback, be prepared to make some adjustments in your style.

An outstanding nonprofit workplace is challenging to achieve, especially when money is tight. But good management starts at the top. Don’t assume success as a corporate leader translates into success leading and managing a nonprofit. Get help from experts who’ve earned a reputation for successful nonprofit management.

And never underestimate what a gold mine your nonprofit has when talented employee recruits are clamoring to work with you!

A Development Director Walks Into A Bar...

“You look like you need a drink, Rob,” the bartender says.

“I do,” replies the 58-year old development director for a human services nonprofit. “Our most generous donor just died, leaving her entire estate to the nonprofit—everything. I learned an hour ago it’s worth at least ten million. I had no idea she had that kind of money!”

“Wow…that’s fantastic news,” says the bartender. “So why the long face?”

“That donor was my wife!”

Ouch. Good news, bad news. Rob’s job might just have gotten a lot easier, but his personal life just took a huge dive—in more ways than one.

Rob's issues aside, if the bartender were serving a trio of development directors, what would some of their “Good News, Bad News” headlines be?

DD #1 Bad News: “My executive director was just terminated.”

DD #1 Good News: “My executive director was just terminated.”

Interpreted: Loss of the staff leader makes for headaches for everyone, especially the development and marketing staff. But maybe the organization is better off in the long run?

Recommendation: The change in top staff leadership might be for the better, but at the very least engage the staff development leadership immediately to advise and implement the thoughtful early-on and important messaging to funders.

DD #2 Good News: “My Board just created a fund-raising committee.”

DD #2 Bad News: “My Board just created a fund-raising committee.”

Interpreted: Board ownership of its fundraising responsibility is at the core of a nonprofit’s success, but it’s not uncommon for well-intended fund-raising committees to be ineffective and time consuming for staff.

Recommendation: When it comes to board-driven fund development strategies, include at the outset staff development personnel who feel safe being candid and transparent with powerful board players. The best fundraising committee is a strong and honest partnership between board and staff.

DD #3 Good News: “My Board just decided we’re doing a gala event to close our funding gap.”

DD #3 Bad News: “My Board just decided we’re doing a gala event to close our funding gap.”

Interpreted: We love the enthusiasm! Unfortunately, many boards equate special events with expanded fundraising, but that’s not always the case. Maybe a year-end campaign of individuals with the help of the board would have a better chance of success—such a campaign is probably long overdue, and would encourage 1:1 donor-relationship building.

Recommendation: For best results, always include key development staff upfront to weigh in on board fund-raising ideas and planning.

The good news/bad news litany goes on and on. It’s part of the normal life of any business—including that of a nonprofit organization. To support their development director not hanging out unduly at the above-mentioned bar, board and executive staff leadership will want to make sure the chief staff fundraiser position is one designed to provide a timely leadership voice to key organizational decisions and strategies.

My Board: It's Got "Personality!"

Advice abounds surrounding nonprofit board development, including job descriptions, stages of a board’s life, expectations, and so much more.

But what about board personality? What is it? Does your board have it? Should it?

I was having coffee with a seasoned development professional recently and mentioned the notion of a board’s personality. She replied that I was probably talking about its culture. At first I agreed, but 24 hours later, I said to myself, “No, it’s something else.”

I mean personality. And when your board has it, you know it.

Personality is about more than being a board with well-known members. In my experience working with my own nonprofits, and now as an interim consultant and coach, I’m struck by something vital that is often missing on our boards. While they might be transparent and inclusive, possess valuable networks and adherence to the mission, they lack the secret sauce that translates and transforms their culture into a community...a vibrant community. They get the job done efficiently, but they don’t necessarily attract the best and brightest leadership to buy into the program.

What does a board with a positive personality look like? It’s not superficial and it’s tricky to measure. I propose it means key leadership—both on the board and at the executive staff level—strive for genuine and sometimes difficult conversations around the organization’s issues. It includes making board and committee meetings safe places for disagreement and active listening, and compelling learning environments. A board with personality may include well-known community players, but they remember to drop their egos at the door. The members of such a board are unified in their passion to protect the mission and to energize one another. This respectful environment brings out the unique gifts of both the bolder members as well the more reserved. When such a process occurs, all members sense it, frequently lingering after a meeting is officially over because they’ve come to know, like, and trust each other. They feel like a real team and they want to continue to be players together.

I believe it is our responsibility as executive staff and board leadership to create a special sense of our board’s unique community that promotes giving much more than they expect. Yes, it’s hard work—it takes time and planning—but the results are worth it. Boards with this special and positive personality can overcome almost any challenge, safeguard the organization during crisis, and exceed goals in fulfillment of their mission. Together with staff, they can compete successfully among all the charitable players.

This is the best board I’ve ever been on” is what we want to hear! Have you experienced this “magical” board community? Would you like to? It is possible.

A Coach In Your (Nonprofit) Corner

Looking for an experienced nonprofit executive who can coach you to achieve your organizational goals? Want a trusted ally in your corner? Mary Hanewall can help you.

Mary has provided leadership and skill sets to national, regional and local organizations, including 37 years at the senior staff management and executive level. She has served as executive director (both staff and interim placement) for the last 18 years. She is especially interested providing expertise to those leaders leveling the playing fields of our society.

She has extensive expertise in nonprofit board leadership, and is an accomplished builder of the staff team. She has earned high repute as a fundraiser, leading organizations to raise more than $100 million during her career. Mary has an extensive and successful public relations track record and is committed to the integration of diverse ideologies and cultures. She holds a Masters of Nonprofit Management (MNM) degree from Regis University, where she was a Fellow in the first class of Colorado Trust Fellows She taught fundraising in the MNM program at Regis University from 2001 - 2004.

Mary Hanewall’s extensive nonprofit background can get organizations on more solid ground or help move them to the next step. She works one-on-one with executive leadership in the convenience and privacy of their offices. Too often these top leaders have no one in whom they can confide, no one with whom they feel comfortable discussing issues, problems, and opportunities. Mary helps them to assess priority issues, break them into parts, then she coaches them to create and implement a manageable plan of action. Generally, nonprofit directors ask her to work with them weekly for at least a three-month period, sometimes more. Rates are affordable: $125 per hour the first eight hours or less, $100 per hour after that.

Once Mary is onboard, results begin to happen quickly, largely because the leader is now holding him or herself accountable—and with someone who has no agenda except to support them. Nearly as important, the executive leader has more clarity and focus, as well as satisfaction doing the hard work of fulfilling a professional mission. Mary can be a coach in your corner.


Non-Profit Executive Director Support Groups: FAQs

Let’s be honest: being a good non-profit executive is lonely. There are often subjects about which the leader cannot confide in even with the best board member or staff team player.
Here’s one way for committed organizational leaders to build confidence, avoid re-inventing the wheel, and get help solving problems: participation in a non-profit executive support group.

Think of it as peer-to-peer mentoring.

Do non-profit executive support groups currently exist? Yes. They are sometimes established by a formal entity, like Denver’s Executive Leadership Institute. Or, leaders can organize them on their own.

What are they like? Think of them as informal peer-to-peer mentoring within an ongoing, trusted group. They are usually small in size—eight to ten is best. They meet regularly—often monthly—and at a set time, usually for 60 – 90 minutes. Their cost is minimal and you won’t have to consume time in planning or maintenance.

What are criteria for joining? Generally speaking, the participants are all current non-profit executive directors or CEOs. Over time, members might transition to a different status, but initially they all share the experience of being the top staff leader of a non-profit organization.

Do these groups allow newcomers? Yes, but with a caveat: one of the characteristics of the more successful groups is that their membership is stable. They don’t have big turnover so newcomers are infrequent. This stability helps the leaders support each other more efficiently. If their numbers get low they’ll invite new people in, of course. And new groups establishing themselves will be actively on the lookout for members.

Don’t the leaders compete with each other? Yes, and in fact they’re often in the same non-profit industry, pursuing the same resources and seeking to brand their own organizations. Here’s the shocker: it’s not a problem (groups where it proves a problem are going about things wrong). In fact, some of the best funding opportunities come from working together to achieve the same support. Occasionally, leaders work together to improve the funding landscape for collective issues. This was definitely the case I experienced as chairperson with the other executive leaders in the Youth Mentoring Collaborative.

If I want to start a group of my own, what is integral to success? Most importantly, the group must be a safe place to talk; confidentiality is key. Also, relationships matter, so if you’re forming a new group, first connect with one to three other leaders with whom you work well. Then, you can each invite several more. Also, participants in existing groups relate that they were more committed to the group if they were rewarded immediately with valuable input and support. It whets their appetite for more.

How do you handle confidential issues? There’s a confidentiality agreement statement—stick to it. When a new member joins, go around the room and talk about what that agreement means.

What’s the secret sauce for staying together? Trust. Also real time advice and counsel and thoughtfulness. Having someone to talk with about the varied and complex challenges and opportunities we face is the glue holding the group together. Members feel support and experience professional development that builds confidence to make decisions. The knowledge that all the leaders have gone through many of same problems is powerful.

Where does the group meet? The group needs privacy. Often one of the group’s conference rooms works well. Don’t make it complicated: provide coffee and water and that’s enough. Participants can brown bag it if they work better over food.

Do the meetings use formal agendas? They can be formalized but, again, don’t make this one more meeting somebody needs to brainstorm, plan, and worry about executing. Often the most important discussions aren’t ever on an agenda. Instead, try a format for each meeting the first time and try not to vary that. If the group goes off on a tangent, consider self-imposed time limits. Maybe one person could step in to facilitate.

Some groups might decide there’s a theme for the year, or month, or quarter—in addition to real-time problem solving with each other. Maybe it’s about board work, financial stability, HR issues.

Are there any shared costs? Few to none. This experience is about time together, not financial resources.

What about 1:1 coaching? Some leaders use both the support group and an individual coach. A big benefit to forming a group is the shared expertise, whereas the benefit of the one-on-one coaching is the personalization.

The above information is a synthesis of several groups’ experiences. Thanks to Bebe Kleinman, CEO of Doctors Care. and Carlo Kriekels, co-founder and executive director to the YESS Institute As Bebe said, “I wouldn’t be the CEO if I didn’t have my group to go to with so many issues and questions.”

Mary Hanewall, Hanewall Resources LLC, provides interim and other consulting and coaching services to non-profit leaders. 303-668-1336

What's the ROI for Nonprofit Executive Sabbaticals?

Why aren’t sabbaticals a household word among nonprofits? We’re known for flexibility, but we have our blind spots: at the moment, sabbaticals are about as much a part of nonprofit culture as robust pension plans! Yet when nonprofit boards encourage their top executives to take a much-needed break, the results have brought huge returns on the investment. 

A foundation leader in Denver heard about my interest in sabbaticals for nonprofit leaders and encouraged me to talk to one of his grantees in Albuquerque. He told me the highly-regarded executive director of 14 years took a leave that resulted in such success it created buzz among the city’s nonprofit community, not to mention the leader’s own Board, staff, and donors. She—and the organization—are thriving, more creative than ever, and expanding their vision. 

Below is a partial list of a nonprofit’s return on investment for a sabbatical for their highest-paid executive. The observations include data from research by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, Third Sector New England, Civic Venture, California Wellness Foundation, and others.

Sabbaticals are an exceptional recruitment and retention tool. Several EDs commented on the loyalty the sabbatical promoted, saying that before their sabbatical they were paying some attention to headhunter calls. That head-turning ended after a needed break.

Sabbaticals rejuvenate. They are probably the most cost-effective means of retaining an excellent leader in need of some time-out. And the research suggests there need be no agenda during that break for the resting executive director.

Sabbaticals promote a “practice” emergency succession plan, or can lead to one. They can engender an environment that builds an emergency succession plan for senior staff members, or points to the lack of one.

Sabbaticals require planning. In the process, both leader and staff will experience considerable psychological benefit while the leader anticipates a break. The “afterglow” helps too.

Sabbaticals are inexpensive, especially compared to replacing an experienced ED. The cumulative cost estimate to replacing an ED is easily $35,000–$50,000. On the other hand, a three-month sabbatical with a half-time interim ED might cost the organization no more in cash outlay than the equivalent of one and a half months’ of the same  executive director’s salary. And that’s leaving out the learning-curve that comes with bringing a new executive onboard. 

Why aren’t there more sabbaticals in the nonprofit environment?

It’s not a regular part of our culture, even if it’d be the wisest practice we could put in place. If you’re a great board member for your organization, the sabbatical is both a metaphor for putting in place best practices to develop key leadership and an example of such a practice. Yes, there might be “no good time” for the top staff executive to take three months off; but on the other hand, waiting might be the driving engine for unneeded turnover—and just when the organization needs its leader most.


“Creative Disruption: Sabbaticals for Capacity Building & Leadership Development in the Nonprofit Sector.” 2009.  Deborah S. Linnell: Third Sector New England. Tim Wolfred, Psy.D., CompassPoint Nonprofit Services.  Download at
“Moving Over or Moving On: Next Career Steps for Health clinic CEOs” Tim Wolfred, Senior Affiliate, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. October, 2011.


Top 10 Reasons to Partner with An Interim Executive Consultant

Most nonprofit organizations manage the transition time caused by the vacancy of their top executive leadership through temporary internal appointments. Either a board or a staff leader fills the role during the recruitment process.

Sometimes it works, but frequently it doesn’t. The organization is already burdened with extra crisis and tackling it with less expertise compounds the problems. Consider these Ten Top Reasons why you might want to partner with an experienced interim consultant during this challenging transitional period: 

  1.  It provides a committed “outsider” with no organizational baggage to stabilize during a potentially confusing and demoralizing period.
  2.  An adept interim consultant will promote a strong partnership between the appointed interim leader and board leadership. This relationship is critical for the success of any transition.
  3. Bringing on an experienced nonprofit consultant means the appointed leader will have expertise in their corner so staff can do its magic—implement programs, fundraise, and carry on the day-do-day nonprofit business.
  4. When board leadership senses staff is thriving and the mission is being implemented, that leadership focuses more effectively on governance as well as the recruitment of its next executive leader.
  5. When the interim team is shored up with a dedicated expert partner, that organization has a better chance of picking up its momentum, becoming more attractive to funders as well as choice candidates for the #1 position.
  6. A good interim consultant provides open and honest feedback on organizational issues that have to be addressed and supplies guidance in solving them. By cleaning up its house, the nonprofit will set up its future leader for success, not immediate crisis.
  7. An interim consultant protects everyone from burnout. The program and all the day-to-day operations can run smoothly for a longer period so the Board can recruit and hire the new executive director with care.
  8. It can provide considerable cost savings: should this step not be taken and the replacement process be hurried and ineffective, the organization must repeat the process—a nightmare for all the obvious reasons.
  9.  A good interim executive partner can help to identify and guide an in-house candidate who might be the interim appointee. This is a tricky situation for the interim and possible future leader; he or she can get stuck in the sometimes-necessary but delicate function of managing “up” to the Board while also interviewing for the future leadership position.
  10. A good outside partner who deftly coaches the staff-board team can help the organization turn a tough transition time into a creative and healing opportunity.