This post is adapted from a white paper I wrote several years ago. The topic continues to be relevant.

A nonprofit executive director’s performance review is about more than just how well she/he is doing the job. For the chief executive it is about leadership, professional development, sharing accomplishments (personal and organizational), receiving feedback, and goal setting. For the board, the chief executive’s performance evaluation is about leadership, fiduciary responsibility, being a responsible employer, goal setting and achievement, and success – success for the organization and the individual.

Why Should We Do This in the First Place?

Evaluation is valuable and key to individual and organizational success. On a personal level, we all need feedback. A board, as an employer, needs to be responsible to their chief executive – her/his continuing growth as a professional significantly affects the continuing success of the organization. Nonprofits stand to benefit greatly from everything the executive director gains through a review process and through professional development. Fostering a culture of goal setting and accountability is a good thing!

A chief executive, in this highly visible role, is being evaluated all the time. In wanting and having a formal review the executive director seizes the opportunity to highlight accomplishments and share them with volunteer leadership in a process set apart for just this kind of intimate conversation. An executive director needs the opportunity to check in with her/his supervisors (the board) on a consistent basis to be sure that personal and organizational goals remain aligned. Goals need to be continually reviewed and revised to ensure ongoing attention to advancing the organization as it fulfills its mission. The performance review conversation offers a chance for give and take at the highest level of an organization.

For volunteer leadership, conducting a performance review for the chief executive is part of their fiduciary responsibility to lead the organization, hold it in trust for future generations, and be a responsible employer. On another level, by reviewing the executive director, volunteer leadership models the type of behavior it wants to support within the organization. Another significant benefit of conducting performance reviews is that it provides a leadership development activity for board members – a way to begin to identify and engage future leaders of the organization.

Where Do We Begin?

Incorporating a review process into an organization’s workings doesn’t have to be elaborate or cumbersome. Something (albeit well thought out) is better than nothing! Decide on a timeline – are reviews conducted for the rest of the staff at a particular time of year? On the employee’s anniversary? Or tied to the budgeting process? Organizations need to begin a pattern of sharing feedback and supporting a culture of goal setting and accountability, both for individuals and for the organization.

For board members beginning to structure a review process, seek advice and look for resources. Look to other volunteer leaders who have experience in performance evaluation and from your own executive director. An executive director’s experience in reviewing the staff can be an enormous help to volunteer leadership in setting up an evaluation process. Chief executives should share what they know. Use the tools you have: job descriptions, the strategic plan, goals set the prior year; also include a self-evaluation component. Always approach the process with sensitivity and respect for the participants as well as the process. The issue of volunteers reviewing paid staff troubles some leaders, but it is a significant part of your leadership responsibility.

Who should be involved in conducting the review – the board chair, the entire executive committee, the personnel practices committee (if one exists), or an ad hoc review committee named by the board chair? Check your by-laws or Constitution to see if performance review is mentioned and if the review team is described. If not, it is up to the board to decide on this aspect of the process. Remember, however, that smaller review teams facilitate scheduling the required meetings and don’t make it seem as if the board is ganging up on the executive director.

The executive director should embrace the opportunity to provide a self-evaluation. It is a way to record successes as well as areas in which support is needed.

I’m Doing a Great Job! You’re Doing a Great Job!

With a process in place, it now needs to be implemented. A chief executive must take care to prepare for this special, focused conversation. It is a unique opportunity to sit down with volunteer leaders and tell of your successes – personal and professional – and those on behalf of the organization. It is a time to set personal, professional, and organizational goals. It is an additional opportunity to monitor progress on strategic plan implementation. It is also a time to raise topics that you would like to address in the coming months or that may need special attention from your board. Alternatively, you may raise issues for which you seek advice.

For board members, the evaluation conversation must be respectful; this is, after all, the senior professional chosen by the board to lead the organization. No chief executive should be unsure of what is going to unfold during a performance review conversation. Reviews are conducted to praise the executive director and to note her/his successes. They are conducted to discuss actions or behaviors that may need to be changed or remediated. Reviews are conducted to identify mutual goals for the chief executive and the organization to strive for and achieve in the coming year.

Volunteer leaders should be sure to frame the evaluation conversation in the right way. Be prepared; this is not a conversation where you want to “wing it.” Be specific, open, and constructive in your feedback. Listen. Use the tools noted above to keep the conversation focused on goals and achievement. I recommend reading the book Tell Me How I’m Doing: A Fable on the Importance of Giving Feedback, by Richard L. Williams.

I’m So Glad We Had This Little Talk – We Should Do it Again Sometime!

So, what comes next? Formal reviews are important, but mutual feedback should also happen casually and often throughout the year, as well as at evaluation time. Praise given in the moment is much more meaningful than months later. Corrective comments have more impact, and are less likely to be perceived as hostile, if made at the time of the incident. Questions asked and answered in a timely manner promote communication and preclude missteps.

Take time as organizational leadership – chief executive and board of directors together – to evaluate the review process after the fact so that it will be even better next time. Just as nonprofits evaluate their programs, internal processes should be evaluated, too. In this way, organizations and leadership can ensure the efficacy of the process, keep up with change, and play to the strengths of those involved.

Finally, individual and organizational successes are intertwined. Having a performance review process supports this mutual achievement and success. Executive directors should value that their volunteer leaders want to be responsible employers by conducting reviews and continuing to set goals that foster success. Volunteer leaders should value the strengths and dedication their chief executive brings to the organization. The effectiveness of an organization and its future rely on strong professional and volunteer leadership, establishing goals and accountability, and working diligently together to achieve those goals.