Executive Director Performance Evaluations

In our experience working with nonprofit boards and executive directors (EDs), we’ve found that when it comes time to evaluate the performance of the ED, boards frequently fail to look at what should be the central question: what results is the ED getting?

Instead, boards frequently focus on how the ED does their work, rather than what they are getting done.

To understand just how problematic this is, try to imagine a board of directors in the private sector ignoring a CEO’s results and focusing instead solely on how they interact with people: “Well, we’re hemorrhaging money, but the staff loves you. Great job!”

While nonprofits don’t need to parallel businesses in every respect, there’s a strong similarity here that matters, which is that both sectors do have a bottom line. For businesses, the bottom line is profit, and for nonprofits, it’s social impact.

Of course, as misdeeds in the private sector have made all too clear, the short-term bottom line shouldn’t be the only component of a leader’s evaluation. Looking at how a leader operates can often capture important information that wouldn’t show up in more objective, short-term results, such as whether an ED is laying the groundwork for future results by effectively cultivating partners, or alienating the staff by operating in a way that isn’t consistent with the organization’s values. Looking at the how also allows the board to provide feedback that can help in professional development and skill-building. These are all things that can and will impact the “what” over time, and they do matter.

But as business writer Bob Sutton points out, a good leader focuses on both performance and humanity. The problem comes when nonprofits focus on the latter to the exclusion of the former.

Boards should focus on what got done, and not just how it got done.

In fact, a quick Google search for “executive director performance evaluations” provides a painful illustration of how far removed much of the sector is from focusing on results. While sample ED evaluations are plentiful, few ask the most fundamental questions of all: What were the organization’s goals this year? Did we achieve them? (And of course, those goals themselves can and should capture a longer-term view as well. For example, goals like “create strong alliances with three new, unlikely allies on our issue” or “build a pipeline of five outstanding, diverse future potential hires for our organizing team” are about setting an organization up for future impact.)

The pervasive focus on the how over the what when assessing an ED’s performance often stems in part from a desire to have an inclusive evaluation process that represents multiple voices—particularly since boards often feel removed from the day-to-day operations of the organization. As a result, we see boards evaluate EDs by surveying board members and/or staff and even external partners about the ED’s leadership. Rather than serving as input to inform the board’s evaluation, this compendium of opinions then becomes the evaluation itself, as if there weren’t any “real world” results to consider beyond people’s opinions.

In addition to utterly neglecting the most important thing the ED is there to accomplish—meaningful results toward the organization’s mission—this evaluation method also signals that pleasing people is the ED’s ultimate job. And while in theory people won’t be pleased if the organization makes little progress, in practice we’ve seen that the question of actual progress gets lost. The outcome is that an organization could be led for years by an ED with little to show in the way of results or progress, all the while getting positive reviews from the board and staff for being a nice person who treats people well.

We’d never argue that how an ED operates shouldn’t be highly relevant in an evaluation. But done well, that how should be just one piece of the evaluation—not the evaluation itself. For organizations that strive to be high-performing and make a significant impact in the world, it’s essential that boards not stop there, and instead go on to a rigorous scrutiny of what the ED—and by extent, the organization—has achieved.1

(We have a sample evaluation form for EDs here.)

1 It’s worth noting that this same principle applies to evaluations of staff members too, not just EDs. You can find our suggested staff evaluation form here.

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