We all know that one of the key roles and responsibilities of a nonprofit board is to hire, evaluate (and in worst case scenarios, fire) the chief executive. But back in 2011, a CompassPoint study found that slightly less than half of the executive directors they polled had ever had a review. Less than half!

It begs the question: what’s getting in the way? It’s certainly not a lack of information about how to do it. It will take you less than 5 minutes to google “executive director evaluation” and you’ll find hundreds of articles, sample evaluations, surveys, and more. Yes, sifting through it all can be overwhelming, but lack of information isn’t the barrier.

It also begs the question: how can we move beyond these barriers? This article opines on some of the most common barriers and offers some simple approaches and tools for fulfilling one of the key duties of a nonprofit board.

First, why evaluations are important

In case you need convincing, following through on your commitment to conduct regular performance evaluations has many benefits. At its most basic, it fosters clear communication around expectations the board has of the ED and offers the ED an opportunity to weigh in on those expectations and co-create a goal-setting plan with the board. While it may seem obvious to you what you expect of your ED, I can tell you it doesn’t always feel that way from the vantage point of an ED. Especially because the board is a collective, if you aren’t having a thoughtful and intentional process of evaluation offered “in one voice” from the board, then the messages from individual board members can be hard to understand or, worse, contradictory.

In addition to being a key way to address potential performance issues before they become insurmountable, evaluations provide an opportunity to have an open and honest discussion of goals set, met, or otherwise pending. It allows for dialogue about the strategic direction of the organization, about professional development goals, and about the degree of entrepreneurial freedom, an ED has to try new things and take some calculated risks. In fact, from the CompassPoint research, it was clear that one of the primary benefits of an ED evaluation is getting the full board and staff team in alignment around organizational goals and aspirations.

What’s getting in our way

Blue Avocado’s article Evaluating the Executive Director provides a concise review of the barriers that I will summarize here by saying that ED reviews are, quite simply, different than other performance reviews in that they are collective instead of individual, which translates into everyone owning it but no one owning it at the same time, and board members are rarely around to observe an ED in all the ways they are doing their job, so it’s harder to gain and trust an evaluative sense of the situation. Also, the culture of nonprofits can get in the way – critique may be withheld because we don’t want to say anything that comes across as ‘too harsh’ especially if the ED is over-worked and underpaid (which is to say, in nearly every single case!) All of this added complexity – within the context of an already over-full plate of activities for boards to manage – puts ED evaluations at risk of being left indefinitely on the to-do list.

Tips for breaking through the barriers

Usually when I’m asked for advice on doing an ED evaluation, especially if it’s the board’s first time in a long while, I tell people to worry less about creating the perfect process and just do something in year one – you can always evolve it in year two and beyond. I then share a handful of key principles that I believe should always be present:

  1. Put high value on procedural transparency – be clear and open about the steps of the evaluation process with the full board, the ED, and the entire staff team. While the results of the review are confidential to the executive director and the board, the process of the evaluation should not be, especially how information is gathered, shared, and used and what the roles and responsibilities are for the various entities involved. Click here for a PDF I’ve used myself and shared with numerous clients – it clarifies the purpose, roles, steps, and timing of an annual evaluation cycle.
  2. The evaluation is best viewed as a collaborative partnership between the ED and the board of directors. It works best when the board and ED have input into the process and see it as mutually beneficial. Goals are set and reflected upon together, meaningful conversations are sparked and sense-making is done in partnership, and the annual cycle includes providing on-going support and input throughout the year.
  3. I have found that soliciting input from the board and staff is one of the primary ways you develop a well-rounded perspective on what’s happening on the ground. I usually don’t experience any push-back on this when it comes to soliciting input from each board member – since the official duty of conducting an ED evaluation falls squarely in the board’s domain. But I have when it comes to staff members, perhaps because it messes with our relationship to hierarchy and who reports to whom. My reminder here is you aren’t asking staff members to evaluate the ED, you are simply asking for their input on how they experience the ED’s leadership and management. Being extra clear on the role of their input and how information will be shared is vital here (see principle #1 above). Blue Avocado has a survey template for gathering input that can be adapted to use in these circumstances.
  4. Being flexible will help you design the right process for your organization. There are no nonprofit police that will step in and cite you for ‘doing it wrong’. Let the organizational culture influence how formal or informal you are: from mid-year ‘conversations’ to formal annual evaluations to bi-annual reviews. Pick what works best and understand that the ultimate goal is to provide opportunities to step back and reflect, give and receive feedback, and set goals for the future.

A handful of commonly asked questions and answers

There are many questions that come up when tackling an ED evaluation process. Here are four common ones:

  1. Should a new or first-time ED have a different process than an existing or long-standing ED? I would make the argument that you don’t need to have a special ED review process or evaluation form for the first-year ED versus a long-standing ED, though of course the goals and strategies will be specific to where that new ED is at in terms of their experience and professional development needs. That said, I have seen boards provide a lot more support in year one, with more frequent one-on-one meetings as well as conducting a “mid-year review” as a means of ensuring a smooth first year. I’ve also seen boards with long-standing and quite senior executives move to a two-year cycle with one year being a review ‘check-in’ conversation and the next year a more comprehensive review. Tailoring to the situation makes a lot of sense to me.
  2. Is it the board president’s job to conduct the ED evaluation? Good question! Groups of 10 to 15 people aren’t the best mechanism for managing an ED evaluation. I think it works best when one or two people take the lead in managing the process. This could be the board president with one other board officer, or it could be a small committee of two or three people pulled together to conduct the review.  This doesn’t mean, however, that input isn’t gathered from the full board, and that the resulting documents aren’t the responsibility of the full board. But you do need an air traffic controller or it likely won’t get done.
  3. Should we be soliciting input on the ED’s performance from funders, clients, and other institutional partners? No, not exactly. In my humble opinion, it’s not about soliciting input on the ED’s performance (which can be awkward and not particularly illuminating) but about gathering input from these external stakeholders on how the organization is performing against its mission and strategic plan. This kind of input can be extremely valuable to the ED and the board and help guide the ED’s goals moving forward.
  4. How does evaluating the performance of the board factor into all of this? While I don’t have data to back up this claim, my anecdotal experience leads me to believe that if a board isn’t conducting evaluations for their ED, they are even less likely to be assessing the board’s performance. Board assessments can feel tricky because it doesn’t feel particularly gracious to be evaluating the performance of extremely generous volunteers who are donating their precious time for free! But I believe there are plenty of ways to thread the needle of being appreciative and setting high expectations for the board’s effectiveness. It involves lots of genuine acts of gratitude.

Get to it!

Hopefully, these key principles and responses to commonly asked questions provide useful information to help you get started evaluating your executive director. Be clear about your process, take a collaborative approach, solicit input from the board and staff, and be flexible when designing a process that fits the organizational culture. But whatever you do, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good – start simple and iterate on your process next year. Good luck!