Watch for Director Burn-out in new Nonprofits

Posted on August 30, 2009 by  
Filed under Board/Staff Relationship · Tagged: , ,

Yesterday, I was conducting a planning retreat for a new, young Social Services organization.  It struck me that their issues and concerns were so common to new organizations that I wanted to write about it.

This organization hired its first (20 hours per week) Director about 6 months ago.  At that time, the board breathed a sigh of relief – because there was FINALLY someone to do the work.    The board backed away from “doing things” and started to assume the role of the board – giving advice and counsel to their new recruit.

Guess what?  The new Director is almost in total burn-out.  Here’s what he’s doing:

1. Volunteer Management – recruiting new volunteers, designing the training for the new volunteers, writing the “job description” for the volunteers postions.

2. Preparing to move into the new offices – meeting with the landlord, trying to secure office equipment and furniture, thinking about paint colors, buying the printer paper, calling the phone company, etc etc etc.

3. Doing the Social Services work – because there are no volunteers at this point, he’s taking calls from people who’ve heard about the organization and he’s starting to do the work of the organization.  But there are no systems or processes in place to actually manage the work yet…..

4. Raising money – researching and writing grants, thinking about indivudal donors and corporate sponsors.  Even though there is a cracker-jack grant writer volunteer – this function still takes time.

5. Board meetings – preparing for the monthly board meetings, meeting with board members at their request, trying to recruit new board members, dreaming about the perfect board.

6.  Strategic Partners – taking calls from and meeting with potential strategic partners

7. Processing all expenses – coding expenses, getting signatures on expense forms, and processing his own salary paperwork.

Guess what?  This Director is working WAY more than 20 hours per week, it’s hard to get much done, and the board members are not in agreement about how to prioritize his time.  So no matter what this new Director does accomplish, he will fall short of the expectations of someone on the board.

Here’s what we did at the retreat:

1. Reviewed what the Director does in a typical week (see list above) because often times board members don’t realize how the Director spends his/her time nor how much time they’re working.  The board could see that this was a potentially explosive situation and that it needed to change. 

2. Reviewed the responsibilities of the board – and the life cycle of an organization.  We reminded the board that their job was to provide oversight and support to an organization.  In this early part of the organization’s life, there is great emphasis on the SUPPORT side.  They agreed to be more a “working board” in the short run than they had been.

3.  Assigned each board member to a specific committee. We had written short 2 to 3-sentence board committee descriptions for each committee prior to the retreat.  In this case, each board member agreed to chair one committee and be on another committee.  No committee had more than 2 board members and no board member was on more than 2 committees.   Each board member has a sense of purpose and a job to do. 

4. Talked about where the organization is currently and where they wanted it to be in 3 years.  It was no surprise that the board wanted to have more clients, offer more services, and have more strategic partners in three years than they do today.   Guess what that implies?  more employees, more volunteers, more office space, and more overall expenses.  Without a more robust fundraising plan, dreams for this organization will fall flat.

5. Prioritized the work of each committee in the short run (2-3 months).  This included working with the Director to set up an annual fundraising plan, prepare for the move into the new offices, think about board skill gaps that need to be filled in the next year, write job descriptions and personnel standards, be sure that the core operations and client management functions are thought out and well-documented.  Each board member walked out the door with a task list – due at the next board meeting in 3 weeks.

6. Prioritized the work of the Director in the short run (2-3 months).  The Director will focus on the move into the office, work on the core operation functions,  and recruit and train volunteers who will be the core of the workforce in the short and longer term.  The Director was glad to know that he could focus on a few tasks and get them completed.

At the end of the retreat – everyone was energized and excited.  

Each board members had a greater sense of involvement and purpose – and a specific area of expertise.

The Director breathed a sigh of relief because he didn’t feel like the entire responsibility of the organization fell on his shoulders. 

LESSONS LEARNED FOR BOARD MEMBERS: Watch for Director burn-out.  Be sure you set clear priorities for the Director. Establish board committees so that each board member knows where to contribute.  Roll up your sleeves and be a “working board” – especially early on.

Ask Alyson: Effective Nonprofit Board Meetings

Posted on July 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Board Governance · Tagged: , ,

Dear Alyson

We have a particular question about our board; currently our board votes on everything including everything our committees decide to do and everything we will spend $$ on, however, this seems to extend our board meetings into eternity.  I wonder should we just let the committees make the decisions and report to the board what the plans are and be done with it….?  Then I worry that the board members will not feel as useful if they don’t vote on every decision…?  How to decide what the committees decide on and what the board votes on?  Can you recommend a solution?

Sheila Browning (alias, of course)
Executive Director

Dear Sheila –

Thanks for asking.  Your question is a very common one.

You are right – your board should let the committees decide most issues (especially those related to their subject matter).  The beauty of committees is just that – they take the work away from the entire board.  If you let the entire board re-discuss each of these issues, then you run the risk of micro-managing and wasting time.

The board approves issues related to these four areas:

1. finances – voting to accept budgets, accepting financial reports during the year, and fiancial projects over multiple years if you have them.

2. strategy – Do you have any sort of strategic plan or 2-3 year view of the future? This requires board approval.

3. policies – HR policies, operating policies, financial or investment policies, fundraising policies/standards.

4. Board members, board officers, approvals and new Executive Directors being hired and terminated.

Here are some ideas you and your board can try:

1. When you develop the next board meeting agenda, start by determining what DECISIONS need to be made by the board. Look to the list, above, to see what really needs to be decided by the board and focus your meeting on those items.

2. Decide what committee or staff will present the recommendations that is being made for the entire board to discuss and decide.

3. Think about what other information/updates should be shared with the entire board.  (Only allow 5-6 minutes for updates on your agenda.)

4. Be sure that the agenda, committee and staff recommendations, and any updates that the board will see at the meeting are sent out a week in advance.


I hope this helps you, Sheila.  Please do let me know how things are going once you’ve tried some of these ideas.

Feel free to forward this message along to your board if you think it will help.