The board of directors is responsible for conducting an annual review or evaluation of the executive director. This annual event is important for providing feedback on job performance, focusing on continued skill development, and is a key component of creating a learning organization. Yet a number of boards for environmental and conservation nonprofits struggle with fulfilling this obligation. It’s not unusual to hear from participants in our Executive Director Leadership Program that they have not had a performance review in several years.
These four steps can make the annual review easier by breaking the process down into manageable actions.
Step 1: Establish a small committee to manage the review
Most boards form a small committee of three to four board members to manage the review process, which should include both written and in-person components. The board chair or president is a logical member of the committee as s/he likely has the most interaction with executive director over the year. Some organizations ask the executive director to suggest one of the committee members as a way of ensuring balance and setting a tone for a collaborative review.
Step 2: Set criteria for the evaluation
- The annual review process should begin 12 months prior to the review with setting goals for the year and establishing the criteria against which the executive director will be evaluated. Consider in particular how the board will measure the director’s leadership and work to advance the organization’s strategic plan or annual plan.
- Using an evaluation form ensures key areas of the executive director’s responsibilities are considered in the review and makes the written portion of the review process easier to manage. Many sample forms are available. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits offers one version, available online in HTML or PDF.
- Most sample forms need to be customized to address organizational needs. Before using a review form from an outside resource, take time to review and customize it.
Trim or tailor “off the shelf” forms to focus on your priorities. Not all aspects of an executive director’s job have equal weighting as implied by many forms.
- Be sure to allow enough space to capture comments and document examples. Don’t rely solely on a form with number ratings.
- Finally, keep in mind the form itself isn’t the evaluation; it is just the starting point for the more important discussion with the executive director.
Step 3: Gather input
A good review cannot be conducted in a vacuum. The goal is to gather enough perspectives and input from people who have worked with the executive director to provide an accurate assessment of job performance. Consider gathering input from:
- Board of directors
- The executive director
- Key partners of the nonprofit
Many groups use an online survey to collect input for the review. Assure staff that their responses will remain anonymous (no names, no IP address tracking) and that you will share only a summary of themes with the executive director. Even with these protections, total anonymity may be difficult in very small organizations.
In addition to gathering input form board, staff, and key partners, it is a good practice is to ask the executive director to evaluate his or her own performance. This is easily done using the same form as used for the review and sets the stage for a better discussion at the performance meeting.
Step 4: Hold a face to face meeting and set goals
During the face to face meeting, the review team should sit down with the executive director to discuss the performance of the past year and look to the future. This meeting is the time for dialogue, ensuring there is adequate time for the executive director to share insights about his/her work and to discuss priorities for the coming year. Allow enough time to discuss:
- Highlights and accomplishments from the year, what went well
- Areas of concern or needing improvement
- Plans for professional development
- Goals for the coming year
During the face to face meeting and in the written performance evaluation, don’t shy away from areas needing attention if necessary. If the director needs to spend more time building partnerships or being the public face of the organization, let him or her know clearly.
After the meeting, the review committee should develop a final written review and summary, including the executive director’s comments about their performance and goals for the coming year.
Remember, the annual review does not take the place of feedback throughout the year. Everyone needs recognition for a job well done and times to reflect on their workload, priorities, and needs. Schedule interim check-ins to be sure they happen. Additionally, address any major issues as they arise during the year rather than holding them for months waiting for the review time.