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Spencer Harris presents results of a Community Foundation of the Ozarks-commissioned survey on satisfaction levels of nonprofit CEOs.
Provided by Community Foundation of the Ozarks
Spencer Harris presents results of a Community Foundation of the Ozarks-commissioned survey on satisfaction levels of nonprofit CEOs.

Nonprofit directors leaving over board challenges

Posted online

“Check yourself before you wreck yourself,” the idiom goes.

But for those who serve on nonprofit boards, the wise move may be to check oneself before wreaking havoc on the work lives of the nonprofit administrators they govern.

In the last 18 months, 18 CEOs or executive directors of Springfield-area nonprofits have vacated their positions, according to Brian Fogle, president of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.

Out of concern for how the so-called Great Resignation was affecting Springfield nonprofits, CFO commissioned a study by Habitat Communication & Culture, a consulting and leadership development arm of marketing firm Mostly Serious LLC.

Spencer Harris, president of Mostly Serious, presented the survey results to area nonprofit leaders May 24.

“We wanted to understand the experiences of executive directors and CEOs – people who are in leadership positions – and what the last 18-24 months have been like,” Harris said, adding that leading a nonprofit is meaningfully different than leading a for-profit entity.

Fogle pointed out nonprofit leaders, like those in the audience, are passionate about what they do every day.

“It’s not about the dollars, but it’s about the help and support,” Fogle said.

Harris said Fogle called him to ask a basic question: Why are people leaving these leadership roles that they care deeply about?

Part of the reason is the Great Resignation, through which 47.4 million people voluntarily left their jobs in 2021 – with some leaving the workforce altogether, Harris said, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

About one-fifth of those who quit did so to actively look for remote work that responded to the flexibility and autonomy their lives demanded, Harris said.

“While they were working at home for some period of time, they realized they were more effective, happier. They wanted to be around their families,” he said.

Harris also cited a Gallup survey on U.S. employee engagement, showing only 32% of employees reported being engaged, with 17% saying they were actively disengaged.

The study
Fogle said CFO commissioned the research, including focus groups, a literature study and survey development, distribution and reporting, through a $25,000 contract with Habitat.

Habitat electronically surveyed 120 nonprofit executive directors and CEOs throughout southern Missouri, and performed eight qualitative interviews with active EDs/CEOs. They also conducted a literature review, though Harris said little has been written about nonprofit ED/CEO work experiences.

The survey measured ED/CEO engagement and found they often felt energy and inspiration in the workplace. Even higher was the level of organizational commitment EDs/CEOs claimed to feel.

The survey did not address nonprofit executives’ level of pay, but it did report that respondents on average spent 10 extra hours each 40-hour workweek.

After learning about engagement and commitment, some may have been surprised at the results when the survey asked when EDs/CEOs could realistically see themselves leaving their jobs. About 7% could see themselves leaving within three months, about 14% within six months, about 12% within a year and about 30% within two years.

Only about 17% said they could envision staying in their current jobs four years or more, the survey found.

Some leaders reported burnout, though few reported doubting the significance of their work.

So, as Fogle asked – why are they leaving?

Board influence
Habitat research found that boards and board members have a significant effect on ED/CEO retention. Those boards with lower levels of administrative or managerial competence were likely to increase leadership turnover intentions.

Boards are perhaps the most significant factor to such turnover, Harris said.

Holly Beadle is CFO’s director of philanthropic services, as well as the former executive director of Isabel’s House. In her current role, she works with the region’s nonprofits in board development and other areas.

She said a key takeaway of the survey is that nonprofits should focus not on doing more with less, but on doing more with more.

“There’s a shifting perspective to doing that,” she said. “It requires more time from volunteers and more resources.”

The survey also revealed there must be more time invested in training an ED/CEO.

“Everybody wants to do a good job, even in the top leadership position,” she said. “They have an amazingly important mission to serve and carry out, and it’s wonderful to be involved in it.”

The survey found only 39% of boards set clear goals for their top-level administrators, and 74% set their own goals for their role. According to Habitat research, EDs/CEOs who encounter organizationally set goals are more likely to report high levels of self-efficacy.

Research from the international journal Procedia CIRP cited in the Habitat study found that 40% of employees without adequate training will leave a job in their first year – and leadership is not immune. Brand loyalty firm BI Worldwide reported that employees with clear goals are more than 14 times more likely to be motivated at work.

Additionally, only 60% of respondents reported they had received some amount of performance evaluation from boards, with 80% of these indicating their evaluations were unstructured. Habitat research found EDs/CEOs who received some amount of formal evaluation were significantly more likely to report high levels of commitment.

Beadle said board members should initiate conversations with EDs/CEOs, and the survey questions themselves can serve as a prompt. Some questions on the topic of burnout began “How often do you feel …,” and were followed up by “… emotionally drained from your work,” “doubtful of the significance of your work” or “like working all day is a strain.”

“Regular check-ins are important,” Beadle said. “If things are great, how do we maintain that? How do we maintain the good stuff and make sure that it continues?”

Likewise, Beadle said, if burnout is encroaching, how can that be addressed?

While research indicates boards of directors are leading to ED/CEO resignations, Beadle noted board members, too, need education and support.

“We need to train and provide education and support for them to do a good job,” she said. “They may be running companies and doing some amazingly high-level work in their respective C-suite jobs, but nonprofit is a different industry. The skills you need are not 100% transferrable from another industry.”

Beadle added that board members should make sure they have a passion for the mission of their organization. If they lag in meeting commitments and expectations, they may need to have a conversation about that.

“A board has to manage its own members and hold them accountable,” she said.

Beadle said the survey gave her a lot of great direction for supporting the nonprofit community for CFO.

“Things are much more defined now – both the challenges and the pain points,” she said. “Let’s get after it.”


1 comment on this story |
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In every big challenge you will see three challenges: A lack of clarity, lack of leadership development, and ineffective conversations. When the goals are unclear, and when performance conversations are unstructured there's bound to be conflict. To quote the article, "Those boards with lower levels of administrative or managerial competence were likely to increase leadership turnover intentions."

And, "Additionally, only 60% of respondents reported they had received some amount of performance evaluation from boards, with 80% of these indicating their evaluations were unstructured."

In short, develop your board and your ED, have structured intentional conversations, and always seek clarity.

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