52 Tips in 52 Weeks: CEO Evaluations—Time to Take Care of this Important Responsibility

August 21, 2020

Written by Heather Iliff, President and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us put a range of routine items on hold while we handled the many complexities of the crisis.  Now that we have taken stock of the long-term nature of the pandemic and the need to sustain our operations, we are starting to circle back to some of those annual to-do’s that we may have put off.  One of those is the annual evaluation of the executive director by the board.  Working remotely for months has perhaps made us feel more comfortable doing a wider range of sensitive meetings that we would only have done in-person previously.  Below are some tips for a successful remote evaluation of the executive director.

  1. Take Time as CEO to Plan the Evaluation: Especially if this is your first CEO evaluation, take some time to think through the ideal scenario and how you can support the board in its process.  Does the board have a process it used with your predecessor or is this new territory?  What evaluation tool will you use (The Standards for Excellence Institute offers samples in our Board and Executive Partnership educational resource packet described below.)?  Will it be a 360 evaluation with feedback from direct reports, or only a board evaluation?  Plan out a scenario and share it with your board chair and/or executive committee.  Be open to their feedback, of course, but your advance thinking is the best way to ensure a smooth and constructive process.CEO evaluations often involve assessment and review of a pre-determined set of goals, objectives and metrics related to the organization’s health and work toward meeting its current strategic plan and mission.  Of course, in the midst of these unprecedented times, nonprofits across the nation have found they’ve had to push aside some or all of the plans they may have set and have had to pivot, seek new ways to carry out their vision and goals.  Thus, at this time, it is important to insert adequate flexibility into the CEO evaluation process to take into consideration the unusual situation caused by the pandemic and the times we are finding ourselves in. This may involve added emphasis on the CEO’s leadership, resilience, and agility in the midst of these challenging times.
  1. Find a Trusted Survey Administrator: It is a best practice for the full board to have an opportunity to have input into the evaluation of the CEO.  For some organizations, this is simply a conversation of the board in executive session.  A more rigorous and objective approach is to conduct an evaluation survey that goes to all board members, and to direct reports if it’s a 360 evaluation.  You do not want this survey to live in your own organization’s online survey account due to confidentiality reasons.  The best choice is if you have a board member who has a survey account available and is willing to administer the survey.  They will need to send out the survey to the participants, track responses, badger the non-responders, and most importantly, produce a summary that removes identifying information and summarizes open-ended comments to ensure none are identifiable.  Maryland Nonprofits Consulting Group is available to administer CEO evaluation surveys, and you can also find a local Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultant  
  2. Stretch out the timeline: Get everyone used to the new way of doing the evaluation by first discussing it between the Board Chair and Executive Director, or with the Executive Committee.  Determine how you will get input from each board member and who will be responsible for the various tasks, and make a timeline.  Share the timeline with the full board in a meeting and let them know how they will be expected to respond.  A sample timeline could be: 
    1. Week 1: Board Chair and CEO Meet (or full Executive Committee)
    2. Week 4: Full board meets; CEO Evaluation Process is Introduced
    3. Week 5: Confidential Survey of board members and direct reports if it is a 360 evaluation
    4. Week 7: Reminder to all board members
    5. Week 8: Executive Committee reviews survey results; discusses potential salary action; reviews salary benchmarks
    6. Week 10: Full board meets in executive session to discuss the evaluation; determine any salary action
    7. Week 11: Board Chair and Vice Chair Meet with CEO remotely to share evaluation results
  3. Executive Session and Sharing Results Remotely: In the virtual meeting environment, if the executive director is the owner of the virtual platform  account, they can switch the controls to the Board Chair by making them the meeting “Host”, and then they can safely leave the meeting for the Board to continue the discussion. When it is time to share the results with the CEO, it can be helpful for the Board Chair to have at least one other board member with them when sharing the results of the CEO evaluation.  This way the board builds institutional memory about evaluations and any specific agreements are shared more broadly.  It can also help the CEO receive more multi-faceted feedback and gain confidence that its not just the opinion of the board chair.  Receiving the written results may also be tricky if anyone else has access to your email, you may want to give the board your personal email address to receive the written survey summary.
  4. Documentation: Be sure to capture the completion of the evaluation in the organization’s minutes (but not the specifics).  For example, “the Board met in executive session and conducted the evaluation of the CEO.”  You can utilize these minutes as documentation for your Standards for Excellence application to demonstrate your organization is adhering to best practices, even in a pandemic!

The Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector states that a nonprofit’s “board should appoint the chief executive, set the executive’s compensation, and annually evaluate the executive’s performance. In cases where a designated committee performs one of these responsibilities, the decision should be ratified by the full board.”

Standards for Excellence learning materials feature resources and tools to help nonprofits address important responsibilities such as CEO performance evaluation. For a set of helpful resources on this topic I encourage you to check out the Standards for Excellence educational resource packets Board and Executive Partnership educational resource packet.

The full series of Standards for Excellence educational packets include sample policies, tools and model procedures to help nonprofits achieve best practices in their governance and management. They can be accessed by contacting a licensed Standards for Excellence replication partner, one of the over 150 Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultants, or by becoming a member of the Standards for Excellence Institute.

Heather Iliff

Heather Iliff is President & CEO of Maryland Nonprofits, responsible for advancing the organization’s vision to create a highly effective, ethical and accountable nonprofit sector that drives change through collective action and advocacy. Ms. Iliff previously served as Vice President of Maryland Nonprofits and Director of the Maryland Nonprofits Consulting Group. She is an experienced facilitator, trainer and manager with international, national and local nonprofit organizations. Ms. Iliff served a 4-year term as an elected member of the Prince George’s County, Maryland Board of Education, and was appointed to County Executive Rushern Baker’s Commission on Educational Excellence for Prince George’s County. Previously, Ms. Iliff was Deputy Director of Alliance for Nonprofit Management and Assistant Director of the Institute for Educational Policy at Open Society Institute – Budapest. Ms. Iliff has been featured as a speaker at national conferences including Organizational Development Network Annual Conference, The Philanthropy and Non-Profit Performance Conference, Alliance for Nonprofit Management Annual Conference, and the Association of Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action. Ms. Iliff holds a bachelor’s degree in international studies from The American University and a Masters in Political Science from the Central European University (University of the State of New York). She is a licensed consultant with the Standards for Excellence Institute.