About 10 years ago, Dick Egan – my friend and, at the time, board chair of the Door County Community Foundation – shared a perspective that completely turned my thinking on its head. He fundamentally reshaped how I view the responsibility of a charity’s board of directors relative to its CEO.
I am the president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. At other charities, the highest-paid professional staff person is the executive director. Although there are some important differences between a president and CEO and an executive director, for purposes of this article, let’s just refer to a nonprofit’s highest-ranking paid staff person as its CEO.
Almost all CEOs who have spent a lifetime in the charitable sector share at least one common perspective: We see board members come and go every year. Even the best board member serves only a handful of terms of a couple of years each. Thus we, as CEOs, consider ourselves to be the providers of stability and continuity in our respective organizations. Indeed, there is a lot of truth in that idea, yet Egan had a different point of view. He said, “The board is here forever. The CEO is not.”
He wasn’t disagreeing with my perspective. Now in my 13th year at the Community Foundation, I have provided stability and continuity as members of our board have come and gone. Yet he was reminding me that the board of the Door County Community Foundation as a whole was here before me and will continue to exist long after I’m gone.
For those charitable CEOs who consider our profession a calling, the line between what is personal and professional often gets blurred. If you’re blessed with a job that is closely aligned with your skills and values, eventually it’s no longer possible to achieve any personal success in your career without commensurate organizational success. Your very identity becomes intertwined with your work. At its best, this kind of leader allows a charity to enjoy a lengthy period of impactfulness and prosperity that far exceeds anything that would have been achieved by a more dispassionate executive.
However, there is one great limitation among CEOs who have this kind of personal commitment. Eventually it becomes hard for those who view their life’s work as a vocation to imagine anyone else at the helm.
That’s why it’s so important to recognize that the board will be there forever, but the CEO will not. The board of every charity needs to look beyond the term of even the most talented and committed CEO to ensure that thought has been given to life without that leader.
There are lots of highly effective nonprofit CEOs in Door County who, I hope, will remain in their current positions for many years to come. Yet inevitably, change will come, and hopefully those transitions will be planned and executed in an orderly fashion. But unfortunately, sometimes life just happens, and fate ignores the plans we’ve made. If a charity plays an important role in Door County, then we need to ensure that it can thrive even after the most inspiring CEO has moved on.
This is a conversation we’ve been having at the Door County Community Foundation for several years now. Although I wouldn’t presume to include myself on a list of the most talented nonprofit CEOs, I do believe that during the last dozen years, I have developed and demonstrated a personal commitment that goes far beyond that of a hired gun. That’s a good thing, and it’s something we should hope every important charity in our community experiences.
Yet we never know what surprises life has waiting for us just around the corner. Thus the Community Foundation’s board has rightfully pushed me to prepare our organization for a future without me at the helm. That has led to reimagining our structure, shifting responsibilities, documenting processes and planning to create new positions. Our goal is to build an even more vibrant and impactful Community Foundation that we are certain will thrive forevermore.
The board of every important charity needs to do the same thing: Look beyond the term of your current CEO to ensure that you’re prepared for the transition that inevitably will come.
Personally, I plan to do what I do at the Door County Community Foundation until I’m not physically or mentally able to do it anymore because I simply cannot imagine having a good life without this work. But there will be a day when the Community Foundation will have a good life without me.
This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on February 6, 2020.