What makes a strong nonprofit leader? Good leaders possess many characteristics. A willingness and ability to share power is essential. Too often boards mistake strong, charismatic leaders for competent CEOs. While a CEO may be knowledgeable about the organization, proficient in financial management, a good manager, and a good community leader, that person must also be able to work as a partner with the board and successfully share power to truly be a successful nonprofit leader.
Often, boards will acquiesce to a dominate CEO and assume all is well because this strong leaders says so. This is a major mistake, as the United Way of America learned in the early 1990s.
Bill Aramony, the organization’s former CEO had at one time been a significant nonprofit leader. He built coalitions. He solved problems. He had a vision that helped the sector become more professional. At United Way he attracted a very strong and influential board. Yet the board was not disciplined in managing its relationship with its CEO and when Aramony had an ethical lapse, the situation jeopardized funding for many thousands of worthy organizations around the country.
Even though the board members and the CEO were proven leaders, all failed in their responsibilities to the organization and the sector. The impact of an inadequate partnership between board and staff was profound and it took many years for the United Way of America to regain the trust that had been sorely damaged by this unfortunate incident.
Do you have any examples of a strong CEO and board that have failed in their responsibilities to a nonprofit? Or on the other hand, an organization that has a strong CEO and board that has been successful?
Dennis McMillian is President of The Foraker Group, a nonprofit capacity building organization based in Alaska, and the author of Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey.