Dani Robbins

The Role of the Nonprofit CEO

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on May 18, 2013 at 11:56 am

I coach a lot of new CEOs, and quite a few not so new CEOs.  Leading an organization is a big job that looks much easier than it is.  In fact, like all leadership done well, it looks like nothing.

I’ve always said that if you asked a cross section of my staff over the years what I did when I was a CEO, they would tell you they didn’t really know all the details, but I went to lunch a lot.  And I did.  And while I was at lunch, I built the profile of the organization, raised significant money, and helped build our board to be the board of choice in our community.  You can do a lot at lunch.

What do nonprofit CEOs really do?

The CEO assists in building the board, both initially through encouraging an appropriate prospecting, vetting, and orientation process and on-going though Board education and evaluation.  Please note that I said “through encouraging” and not “by doing.”  It is the CEO’s role to support good board process, and the board development committee’s role to lead the process.

The CEO is the chief fund raiser, the chief cheerleader, and the leader in building a culture of philanthropy.  The development staff raises money independently and also supports the CEO and the board to fulfill their fund raising roles. As discussed in greater detail in the Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives  “Resource development functions most effectively in a culture of servant leadership and philanthropy among the board and leadership team, as well as an agency-wide commitment.  A community cannot and will not invest in an agency without the investment of the board and staff.  Development staff cannot raise money without the support of the CEO. CEOs cannot raise money without the support of the board. Resource development is a group effort, with everyone giving, and everyone moving toward the goal of a sustainable organization.”

The CEO is the face of the organization.  That means that everything they do, whether at work, at the store or elsewhere – both good and bad – will reflect on the organization.

The public pieces aren’t the sum total of the role, there’s internal work to be done as well.  That includes policy and plan development, staff leadership and system development, and program assessment, development, implementation, and evaluation.

It is your job to engage, inspire and ensure that your team in fulfilling their role and moving forward your mission. That means you have to set and hold people accountable to high standards; live, infuse and model your organization’s values; and make sure every day that your mission and your clients are paramount. It’s very easy to begin to think that donors, community leaders, politicians or the Board are the ones we exist to serve, yet they are not. Our agencies exist to serve our clients.

Finally- and this is what most people miss most- strategic thinking and planning will help you align your organization and change your community.

Good leaders get out of the trenches.  Crisis management is an option when necessary- and we all know it is occasionally necessary- but it cannot become the CEO’s default leadership style.  Good CEOs find the time to think, to assess, to challenge and to wonder if there isn’t a better way.

CEOs also encourage and support their board to do a strategic plan and then implement that plan.  “Strategic planning is a process in which the board, staff, and select constituents decide the future direction of an organization and allocate resources, including people, to ensure that target goals are reached. Having a board-approved, staff-involved strategic plan that includes effective measurements and the allocation of resources aligns the organization, provides direction to all levels of staff and board, and defines the path for the future of the organization. It also allows leadership, both board and staff, to reject divergent paths that will not lead to the organization’s intended destination.”   (Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives )

At the end of the day, the job of the CEO is to ensure the organization is still standing tomorrow, and preferably thriving!  They understand the organization is the vehicle, but the focus is the mission and the clients.  CEOs inspire and engage everyone with whom they come into contact to work for the betterment of their clients and their community.

And you thought we just went to lunch.

As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

  1. […] mentioned in The Role of the Nonprofit CEO “Resource development functions most effectively in a culture of servant leadership and […]


  2. […] to those goals.  That means the Board has to let the Executive Director fulfill the bounds of her role.  There should also be a strategic plan that is being implemented, board approved policies that […]


  3. […] and other staff roles too. For more information about that role for a paid leader, please see the Role of the Non profit CEO.  A board with no staff takes on some subset of those roles based on their needs, and their […]


  4. […] In a similar vein, Dani Robbins wrote a piece on the role of the nonprofit CEO. She says that leading an organization is a big job that looks much easier than it is. In fact, like all leadership done well, it looks like nothing. Her post sheds light on all the CEO's really do. You can read it at: The Role of a Nonprofit CEO. […]


  5. […] It starts, like everything else, with leadership. Boards must select leaders that can take them where they want to go. That means they have to know where they want to go and the type of leader that can get them there. For more information on selecting the right leader, please see the article Dos and Don’ts in Hiring an Executive Director and the post The Role of the Nonprofit CEO. […]


  6. […] Every time I speak on issues related to nonprofits, and I mean every single time, regardless of the topic, someone, usually a Board member or an Executive Director, asks “What is the role of the Board?” It has happened so often, and so consistently, that I don’t even wait for the question anymore, I just include the information. Then, of course, the question that follows or should follow is “What is The Role of the Nonprofit CEO?” […]


  7. […] mentioned in The Role of the Nonprofit CEO “Resource development functions most effectively in a culture of servant leadership and […]


  8. I am a new unexperienced CEO of outreach ministry for the poor. I need training and ideas on that.


    • Thanks for your note. If you could be more specific on what you seek, I’d be happy to try to help. Are you looking for more information on outreach ministry, working in low income communities or becoming a new CEO? If you could let me know where you are, that would help too.


  9. […] have one employee, the CEO.  Every other employee works for that CEO.  The CEO’s role is to lead the staff, support the Board, manage the day to day operations and serve as the face of […]


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