When I thought about this topic for an article, I was thinking it would be geared towards younger, newer organizations. That was until I recently spoke with the Board Chair of a nonprofit that has been around for 16-years. They still do not have a system in place for providing feedback to their Executive Director, or helping to ensure that the Exec’s work aligns with the goals and strategies of the agency.
With that, this article is for any organization that does not have an executive evaluation system in place, or whose system isn’t really working for them. You may be wondering why a business would not have a system in place for evaluating their highest staff leader. The biggest reason I see occurs when the founder of the organization is the Executive Director. The board often does not know their role with providing feedback for them. It can also be hard and sometimes awkward to get started.
Technically, the Board of Directors of a nonprofit organization supervises the Executive Director. However, the unique structure of nonprofits means that the Board and the ED have to work closely in partnership to effectively lead the organization. The challenge can come from the need to maintain a collaborative relationship, while also providing the leadership, guidance and growth opportunities of a supervisor. My recommendation is always to start this process in the same way that you lead the organization, as a shared project.
Depending on the size of the organization and the number of employees, there may already be a system in place that the Exec has established for evaluating staff. If so, this is a great place to start. I don’t mean that the board should just take the tools that the staff is using, and apply them to the ED. What I mean is, if there is already an evaluation cycle or timeline, look at how to roll into it. Look at the tools that are being used to see if any of them make sense for your task. Get an idea of how the current process looks and feels.
If no process exists, or the board doesn’t really like the one that is there, it actually gives you a lot more freedom. Here are some questions to think about as you start planning:
- What is the culture of the organization and how should it inform the evaluation process?
Is the organization formal and serious? Playful and fun? Relaxed yet determined? All processes and procedures should link back to the values and the brand of your organization. That’s not to say that if you have a playful culture you do not take the process seriously. Supporting your ED is important work. But your system may be relaxed and conversational.
- How should the timing look?
Many organizations tie the executive evaluation to their fiscal year or the calendar year. Since you may be starting from scratch, it’s worth evaluating the best time of year to conduct the evaluation process. The end of the fiscal year can be a very busy time for nonprofit professionals. They may be wrapping up fundraising efforts, creating plans and budgets for the coming year, and measuring the impact of the work for the past year. If the fiscal year lands at the end of the calendar year, there are all the additional commitments that come with the holidays. Consider holding annual evaluations during a slower time of year, so it’s not one more thing for staff to commit to.
- Who should be involved?
This depends on the size of your board. If you have a board of three people, it may make sense for one person on the board to conduct the whole thing. If you have a larger board, the Human Resources committee should drive this process or an ad-hoc task force. Ideally, more than one person provides input about what will be shared with the Exec. Additionally, the meeting should be conducted with at least two representatives from the board. This communicates that the feedback is coming from a united front. At the same time, it’s not a huge group making the ED feel ganged up on.
- What are the preferred outcomes?
Conducting an executive evaluation is not just about checking something off a list. It’s about deepening relationships, providing opportunities for growth and improvement, advancing the work of the organization, and respecting the staff leader of the nonprofit. Going into the process with this mindset ensures a positive outcome.
Once you think through these questions for your organization, you come to the matter of starting the process. Often boards struggle here because they have not put any measurements or expectations in place. It begs the question – how do you evaluate someone when you haven’t really outlined their expectations? That’s a fair question. My recommendation is two-fold:
- Start out as a two-way conversation, and
- Base the conversation on generally accepted executive competencies.
Rather than going into the meeting with measurements and clearly defined deliverables, approach it as a conversation. Granted, it should be a conversation that both parties are well prepared for; however, it should be a transparent discussion. Acknowledge the fact that the agency has not had a system in place for evaluating the ED. Note that getting started is difficult, and you’re more focused on getting it implemented than ensuring a perfect process from the start. Share plans for improving it in the future.
Base the conversation on general expectations of nonprofit staff leaders. This includes things like:
- Operational effectiveness
- Team leadership
- Community presence
- Administration & Human Resources
- Financial sustainability
- Mission impact
- Board of Directors leadership
The unique needs of your organization may lead you to add something different or remove some of these categories. This isn’t an exact list, just a good place to start. Come to an agreement with the Executive Director on what items are relevant to their role. Both parties should take some time to think through the Exec’s performance in each category, documenting their thoughts. Then, for that first evaluation, it should really be a discussion where both parties compare notes and talk about any discrepancies. Document how the conversation goes, any action steps to be taken, and start planning for next year.
As you prepare for the future, think about how this process went. What were the positives and what should be improved. Consider any concrete measurements that should be put in place for the coming year. Be sure to tie measurements to the big picture and strategies. Then communicate them to the ED right away, so they know what they will be evaluated on the following year.
The last point that I would like to make on implementing an executive evaluation is to keep the conversation high level. If the ED made a mistake 6-months ago, it should have been addressed at that time. Did they learned and grew from the experience? Then there is no need to include it in the year end evaluation. If anything, they have shown that they are coachable and growth minded. The evaluation is an opportunity to look big picture at the effectiveness of the Executive Director and their role in advancing the mission of the organization.
A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. Initiating an executive evaluation process is an important first step in ensuring effective leadership and organizational success. Approaching the task with the mindset of having a conversation, rather than needing to have a formal process can help to get the ball rolling. By establishing a framework for comprehensive discussions, feedback and support, boards can foster a culture of continuous improvement and promote the long-term sustainability of their organization.
Every nonprofit is different and has unique needs and challenges. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss how to get the executive evaluation process started for your organization.
Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders.