From board member to development director – or not?

publication date: Sep 28, 2012
 | 
author/source: Jane Garthson
Should a charity consider hiring a board member for the paid role of Director of Development (DoD) within the organization? Let's consider the issues.Jane Garthson photo

What does such a move make possible? 

A dedicated, passionate board member who is already somewhat knowledgeable about the organization and sector wants a staff position. And they have the skills to compete for an opening. They may already know some of the donors and funders, and should be perceived as speaking from the heart, given their volunteer service. 

How could this not be a good thing for the charity? Sometimes it is, but read on because there are many pitfalls. 

How is this different from a volunteer becoming staff? 

Many people volunteer to increase their chances of finding employment. Sometimes that employment is with the organization where they've been volunteering. It means they've demonstrated not only good skills and attitude but ability to keep commitments and fit in. And they have a running start on the new job because they already know some of the people and programs. Generally, this is a good way for a nonprofit to hire. 

But a board member sets direction, approves the plans and budget, and evaluates the executive director. They may be perceived as putting undue pressure on the person doing the hiring, or even as having created the job opening in order to fill it themselves. 

Whose interests are being served? Perhaps that board member had been complaining for years that the organization needed to add a DoD position in order to increase fundraising revenue. And they never mentioned wanting the job until the position was established. Were they thinking of the best interests of the community and organization, or of paying off their debts? Were they desperate and using their board position for personal gain? In my experienced, a board member that wants to make the shift to a staff role is almost always unemployed or under-employed. 

Anyone who has been around the sector for a while has seen a senior staff member forced out by someone who wanted their job. Board chairs are particularly able to make that happen. There will be extra suspicion if the chair then takes the position. 

Remember, even when a senior staff person needs to move on because their competencies no longer match their role, they likely have many allies on the staff and in the community. When asked by donors and other supporters about what happened, remaining staff members may feel very uncomfortable supporting the new DoD. 

Frying pan or fire? 

Consider how the Executive Director would feel about choosing the board member for the DoD position. A former boss becomes an employee. Will the person be emotionally able to make that shift, or still act as boss? Will the person feed operational information and gossip back to friends on the board? Could this undermine the Executive Director? How will the board react if the person doesn't work out and has to be fired? How will staff react to a hire they may see as forced upon the ED when others might have been better qualified? What if everyone expected a certain staff member to be promoted, and now that person reports to the former board member? 

The opposite case can be even worse. The Executive Director doesn't choose the board member as DoD. Now the Executive Director reports to someone he or she has rejected! That director can make life very hard for the ED, and whoever is hired instead will be subject to extra scrutiny by those who think the director should have been chosen. The ED might be seen as thinking the director was good enough to lead but not to support. Of course, that thinking is silly as the competencies are so different, but you can't control perceptions. 

So is there an ethical way? 

There are a number of essential steps to establishing a fair process.
  • The board member interested in the DoD position refrains from all discussions about the position, and declares a conflict if a related issue comes to a vote. This is quite difficult, as plans that set priorities and assign resources deal with all parts of the organization.
  • The board member learns about the position's qualifications, competencies and responsibilities, and fairly assesses themselves as well qualified. Though they may need help from others to do this, they should not put the organization's staff on the spot by asking for their opinions.
  • The board member resigns before applying. This should not be negotiable. A leave of absence is inadequate.
  • The board makes no commitments about what will happen if the director is not successful.
  • The Executive Director takes particular care to ensure real and perceived fair competition, and keeps good documentation that shows the best qualified person was hired.
  • The board then stays completely out of the hiring process, not even asking if the person was interviewed.
  • If the person is successful, the directors refuse to hear any organizational gossip from the new employee, or to allow them to bypass the chain of command and take issues directly to board members. The directors give full respect to the new board colleague who replaced the one who resigned to apply, and they do not allow the former director to keep acting like a board member.
  • If the person is unsuccessful, they are considered as any other candidate would be in terms of filling board vacancies. The effect on the Executive Director of a reappointment is explicitly taken into account. The board makes its decision based on what is best for the community and organization. One option is to consider the individual for the board again after one year has gone by.
  • The resignation before applying is critical so that the Executive Director does not immediately have to deal with someone on the board who is upset. You may think the board member will handle it professionally, but you truly can't know that in advance. An interview after the decision is announced is a better way to find out how the person is reacting to rejection.
Should we have a policy against such transitions? 

Many organizations have a policy that former staff cannot join the board until at least a year has passed, and I consider such policies very wise. 

The situation is less clear in the opposite direction. Many good staff members have come from board positions, and staff positions cannot usually be left vacant for a year! However, the more senior the staff position, the harder it is to have the selection perceived as ethical. 

So for a job like DoD, the director needs to be an exceptional candidate to make dealing with suspicions and staff concerns worthwhile. Sometimes they are, so I wouldn't close the door. I'd rather see a policy that outlines the roles and processes to be used, and keeps the interested director out of the discussions and votes. 

Jane Garthson is president of the Garthson Leadership Centre, dedicated to creating better futures for our communities and our organizations through values-based leadership. She's a contributing author to You and Your Nonprofit. For more information, see http://www.garthsonleadership.ca.


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