Dear Nonprofiteer, Does refusing to describe my job mean I can refuse to do it?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

The Executive Director of our mid-sized environmental advocacy nonprofit never actually does any work.  I take up the slack from my perch as Program Director, with a lot of help from the Development Director; but all we can do is make sure the day-to-day gets done.  We don’t have the power to push the group in the new directions made necessary and possible by a collapsing economy coupled with a President who’s actually pro-environment.

Here’s the problem: though the E.D. is weak in the sense of not doing the job, she’s strong enough to resist the occasional calls for a job description.  So I can tell you that she never actually does anything, but the Board can’t exactly fire her for failing to measure up to a completely nebulous task.  What should we do?

Signed, Doing Double Duty

Dear Double,

The Board CAN exactly fire her if it wants; that’s its job.  But if it wants to avoid litigation, it won’t do so without first giving Lazy Exec warnings and the opportunity to mend her ways–and, right, it can’t do THAT without having a written job description against which to compare her performance.

But I don’t understand “strong enough to resist . . . calls for a job description.”  Very few employees write their own job descriptions, and lest we forget the Executive Director is merely an employee.  The Board is the employer, and it should write a description for the job it expects her to do.  (If the Board has a Personnel Committee, writing descriptions of this type is its primary–perhaps its only–task, though many such committees instead amuse themselves by interfering with the Executive Director’s management of the staff.)

Of course, we’re all collegial and non-confrontational in nonprofits, so the description should be presented to Lazy Exec as a draft for her input; but whether or not she provides input, the description should be adopted at the next Board meeting and it should be clear at the time of adoption that it’s the basis on which Lazy will be evaluated going forward.

But how to accomplish this from your post on the program staff?  First, be specific: what does Lazy not do that an Executive Director should be expected to do?  What’s slipping through the cracks?  Put your head together with the Development Director and make a list: Lazy refuses to meet with your biggest funder, leaving DevDir to do it.  Lazy didn’t review the evaluations from your last public program and instructed you to repeat portions of the program that attracted condemnation from all quarters.  Or whatever.

Then bring these to the Board’s attention as tactfully as possible.  How?

  • Drop them by-the-way into your own reports to the Board.  “Oh, no, we didn’t get a MacArthur grant this year.  They require the Executive Director to participate in the site visit.”
  • Mention them off-the-record to a friend who happens to be a Board member.  (You never heard me say this because staff members should NEVER go around the Executive Director to the Board.)  Remind your Board friend that without a job description Lazy Exec can’t be held accountable for anything, and urge him/her to raise this with the Personnel Committee.
  • Agitate within the staff and informally among the Board for the agency to conduct a strategic planning process.  Then make sure “Human Resources” is one of the strategic planning teams, and that someone with HR expertise is invited from outside the agency to participate in the process.  Trust me: before the process is through, creating an Executive Director job description will be high on the list of Board tasks.

The third technique is actually most productive, because it’s easiest to determine the Executive Director’s tasks when the agency’s direction has been recently and ambitiously spelled out.  Besides, what Program Director ever got in trouble for suggesting that her agency think and act strategically?


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