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  • Pat Libby

Tips for Evaluating a Nonprofit CEO

Let’s be real: The relationship between the chief executive of a nonprofit and the leadership of the board is inherently odd.

On the one hand, executives are hired to lead the organization. On the other, the board is put in place to govern it.

That means the board is both a partner to and supervisor of the chief executive. Now my husband would probably say that that sounds a lot like our relationship…

It’s just such an interconnected partnership, that when it comes time for the annual evaluation of the nonprofit chief, it can get pretty weird.

To make your life easier, here are some tips for board members who are tasked with the dreaded annual CEO/executive director evaluation (regardless of what you call that person).

First, whomever is leading the board should take charge of the formal evaluation process. I say “formal” because I know that throughout the year this person and other members of the executive committee have been diligent in giving the chief regular feedback. :)

The formal process begins by agreeing upon the tool that you’ll use to assess the performance of the chief.

If you don’t already have one, you can use the information superhighway to find samples of different evaluation forms -- either pick the one you like best, or to create a form using bits and pieces from different evaluation tools.

Next you’ll decide where you’ll want to get input.

Who should give input?

Board members

At the very least, you’ll want to get input from your fellow board members. Just know that many may not respond to the invitation to comment, which is just fine as long as the executive committee (or the chair and a subset of the board) weigh-in in detail on the chief’s performance.

To solicit input from the board as a whole, have the chair email everyone a blank copy of the evaluation form with instructions to return it to him/her. The board should be invited to comment on the entire form or, on any part of it, within a set period of time (a week or 10 days is fine). Even if they don’t reply, they’ll be informed of the evaluation process.

Have the chief do a self-evaluation

Some people find self-evaluations are an uncomfortable exercise: others find them helpful. If you go in this direction, be sure to have the chief use the standard evaluation form that you’ve developed.

All staff, partner organizations, and board

You could launch a 360 degree survey where you get input from staff people at all levels of the organization, input from leaders of partner organizations, and input from the board as a whole. These surveys should be sent anonymously to the board chair who can then share the results with the committee. Or, if this sounds too ambitious for a first go round, you may decide to do something comprehensive like this every 3 years or so.

Remember; transparency is always the best policy – especially if you have someone who wants to complain; you want to make sure that they feel they are heard.

What about the outliers?

So how do you handle an outlier – someone who is extremely cranky when no one else is? Do two things:

First, filter that person’s comments on the evaluation so they don’t carry a disproportionate amount of weight.

Let’s say, for example, that a board member says, “Pat has the worst breath of anyone I’ve ever met! What’s up with that?” And you share that comment with other members of the executive committee and they say, “Huh? I’ve never noticed that at all. She seems perfectly sweet smelling to me and has even offered me Altoids on occasion...”

What you’d do then is have a discussion among the executive committee about whether or not to relate that feedback (along with all of the other information you’ve received) and, if so, in what way. You might decide to write something like, “One board member commented about Pat’s breath, mentioning that it was foul smelling, however, no one else related a similar comment, even when asked to reflect directly on this matter of hygiene.”

But even with that, you’re not done with Mr. or Ms. Crankypants; the board chair still has an obligation to have a one on one conversation with that person to get to the root of the problem.

How to present the evaluation?

To be clear, the chair pulls together the evaluation, reviews it with the executive committee to make sure everyone is in agreement with what it says, and presents it to the chief.

You can also elect to have the current and past chair of the board present it to the chief, but please don’t have more than 2 people do that -- you don’t want the executive to feel out numbered.

And that, my friends, is how to conduct a transparent and thorough evaluation of a nonprofit chief.


Pat Libby is a San Diego consultant that offers nonprofit consulting and philanthropy consulting services. Contact Pat for more information on how she can help your organization.

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