When Board Members Become Staff

Dilemma: Board Member Applies to be the Executive Director But Isn’t Hired

by Ro

Dilemma: Board Member Applies to be the Executive Director But Isn’t Hired

by Ro

by Ro

“A sitting Board Chair applied as a candidate for our organization’s open executive director position. The Chair took a leave of absence from the Board, interviewed for the position and did not advance as a final candidate. Our organization has selected an incredible new Executive Director, and the unsuccessful candidate wants to return as Board Chair. Is this okay? If this person can’t be Board Chair, could they still serve on the Board?”

This is an actual question that recently landed in my inbox. I get a lot of questions from my friends in the Successful Nonprofits® community, and I respond to each person who reaches out. Here’s my response:

There is no gray area here: A Board President can’t return to the Board after applying for the Executive Director position – regardless of how far along they went (or didn’t) in the search process. 

The reason is simple:The Board has oversight responsibility for the Executive Director. The Board not only hires the Executive Director, but is also required to:

          • Conduct the chief executive’s annual evaluation
          • Make compensation decisions for the CEO position
          • Create policies an Executive Director must implement
          • Sometimes even terminate a chief executive if necessary.  

It isn’t possible for a Board member to compete for the job and then be fully impartial when providing this important level of governance oversight. And considering the former Board Chair’s request begs the question, “Would you want to be supervised by a person who applied for, and didn’t get, your job?” I know there isn’t a world where I would knowingly accept a chief executive position if an unsuccessful candidate was serving on the Board.  

Clearly, allowing this person to return as a Board member would set up the new Executive Director for failure. 

A few years back, I faced a similar situation while doing an interim Executive Director engagement. In this case, the Board Treasurer wanted to apply for the CFO position. The Executive Committee asked the Treasurer to resign from the Board before applying and made it clear that there was no path for returning to the Board – regardless of the outcome of the search. The Treasurer understood and accepted this because she understood the Board’s important role in fiscal governance (reviewing financial statements, creating financial policies/procedures, engaging the auditor, etc).  

Because the Treasurer was incredibly committed to our organization, this was an agonizing decision. She eventually decided to step down from the Board in order to apply for the CFO position.  

You’re probably wondering, “Did she get the job as CFO?” and my answer won’t satisfy your curiosity: that isn’t important for this blog post. Not knowing whether she was ultimately hired underscores the fact that she closed the door on Board service when deciding to apply for a staff position. 

Why I’m writing about this:

Since the inception of Successful Nonprofits® in 2014, I have offered professional coaching for Executive Directors, Development Directors, and founders seeking professional development and support. Through my coaching practice, as well as my nearly 20 years as an Executive Director or interim Executive Director, I have learned what helps chief executives succeed and become the leader they were meant to be. If you’re interested in coaching, please reach out to me!




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    Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful:

    Blog: The Unintentional Interim Executive Director

    Blog: Build the Board You Need with a Board Matrix!

    Podcast: Your 3 Legal Duties as a Nonprofit Board Member with Bruce Hopkins

    Podcast: Why You Need an Interim Executive Director with David Harris


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