March 22, 2023

7 Things Shrewd CEOs Ask Their Boards to Do That Reduce Executive Burnout

Are you seeking ways to engage your board of directors to support your work and improve its function? Here are seven things CEOs ask their boards to do.

When it comes to nonprofit CEO burnout, constructive board behavior is massive. In fact, a supportive board can reduce a CEO’s burden by half.

Do you think that’s crazy for a group that meets monthly or less? If so, consider the advantages of working with a team who supports you, reminds you of the big picture, invites new people into the community, and has your back.

It’s the difference between getting a hand up a mountain and carrying a dozen fragile eggs up it.

The Inspiration for this Post
A board had a terrible time hiring a CEO. They’d gone through several CEOs and several candidates. The chair shared the problem with a friend.
“Why do you think you’re having such a hard time?” the friend asked.  
“We don’t have a full-time COO.”
“Hmmm, that’s not what I’ve heard. Are you interested in the rumors?
“It’s the board.” 
The chair heard the message, the board improved and a CEO was hired.

What Can Board Members Do to Reduce Nonprofit CEO Burnout and Turnover?

Here are seven behaviors that any board member can do to support their executive. We divide them into two categories, meeting behaviors and stuff to schedule

I. Meeting Behaviors

1. Board Accountability

Ask the board to be accountable to the board chair or the governance committee. Is someone missing meetings? Failing to make a donation? Make fixing this the work of a peer, not the CEO.

Why? It’s socially and professionally awkward for the CEO to ask the board to be accountable when they are responsible to the board.

🧠 2. Be Curious

Encourage the board to be surprised about what they’ll learn serving on the board.

The culture tells us that working for a nonprofit is easy. Other leaders assume they know how to run a nonprofit.

The facts: Nonprofit CEOs need traditional CEO skills and talents. Plus, they must motivate volunteers, ask for donations, and consistently work with tight budgets. Moreover, like all specialties, from eating wild mushrooms to HR, nonprofit leadership contains nuances you learn in the trenches.

Boards who think they know burn CEOs out.

This is especially true with fundraising. Want to test it? Ask your members to unanimously write down what they think would be the most helpful thing they could do to fundraise. Collect the answers. Discuss the collective responses. Give kudos to those who get it correct and information to the misinformed.

🌟 3. End Meetings Well

Before board meetings close, invite your board to share what went well. Include shout-out insights, kudos for staff, tasks done well at the meeting, and, of course, the CEO’s leadership. Invite your members to leave everyone feeling good about working together and looking forward to the next session.

Finish meetings strong.

📣 4. Be a Champion on Issues Important to the CEO

Individual members may agree with your board’s agenda issues. When they do, ask them to champion the topic during the meetings. Some items benefit from sponsorship and cheerleading. When board members carry ideas across the line, the CEO has less to haul. 

II. Stuff to Schedule

✍️ 5. A Yearly CEO and Board Evaluation

Ask your board to schedule the CE0s and the board’s annual reviews. Again, it’s awkward for the CEO to ask for these reviews. (Note: Perhaps not surprisingly, because of this unease, many, if not most, CEOs don’t get reviewed. (45 percent, Daring to Lead, 75 percent Social Impact Architecture.)

Absent other information, humans ruminate on the negative. Stepping back to evaluate your work is an opportunity to celebrate accomplishments and refine expectations. And, if concerns exist, act.

📚 6. CEO Continuing Education

Request that your board ask you to report to them on your continuing education plans so the budget and time get locked in for them. (See Karen’s CEO Conversations for one free option.) By learning, you’ll discover better ways to do your job and camaraderie (especially when you learn with other nonprofit CEOs.)  This board support pressures you in a good way, so you don’t decide you don’t have time for continuing education.  

🎢 7. CEO Vacations and Paid Time Off

The best CEOs have a healthy life outside of their work. Attending to this life, including taking your vacation, brings perspective, rest, and better health. On the practical side, CEO vacations provide opportunities to pilot emergency succession plans that protect your nonprofit. So urge your board to get you to set your vacation before other events in your calendar.

Nonprofit boards’ behavior can reduce CEO burnout. What support does your board give you that prevents burnout? What would you add to this list?

You can keep up with me –subscribe to my twice-monthly newsletter, Karen’s CEO Solutions

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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