A post from professor and fundraising professional Heather Carpenter’s excellent blog:
“I recently noticed a trend in many nonprofit organizations. The Executive Director/CEO travels around the country and speaks at nonprofit conferences. This is good in theory because it promotes the organization but…what is going on back at the office while the CEO is away? There should be a COO (Chief Operating Officer) or Operations Director with full authority making the tough decisions back at the office. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and CEOs are expected to be the figurehead for the organization and make tough decisions back in the office. We need to recognize that nonprofit CEOs cannot do it all and we need competent Chief Operating Officers to have full authority to run the day-to-day operations of a nonprofit and interact with the board of directors while the CEO is traveling the country promoting the organization.”
I completely agree that “absentee” leadership can hurt a nonprofit. But so can a leader who stays in the office all the time, focusing only on his or her own programs and learning nothing about the field. A balance need to exist between internal (management) and external (research in the field and cultivating contacts) focus. Of course, a strong second in command is a great solution for the management and decision-making aspects. But this plan also seems to lend itself to some office politicking, along the lines of “who is the decider”? (yeah, I went there). I could envision program staff vying for money for their own budgets playing an absentee CEO off a say-to-day managing director or COO pretty craftily. I think another helpful element for operating effectively in the absence of senior leadership is a clear and detailed strategic plan that staff can refer to in the absence of a decision-maker.