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Hiring a Nonprofit Executive: Cautionary Tale – Epilogue

Though published just last week by CharityChannel, I wrote a cautionary tale several months ago. I warned about what can go wrong when a nonprofit board of directors succumbs to fatigue and settles for less than the best when hiring a new chief executive.

It turns out that the last lines of that post are haunting me now: At the end of December, the organization I wrote about closed its doors after over a century of providing its services to low- and moderate-income families.

Reasons cited for closure were decreasing numbers of clients resulting from changing demographics, heavy reliance on state and federal funding that had been cut, and several years of significant deficits. All true. And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether the situation would have been different if, years ago, the board of directors had not “settled” when selecting a new executive director.

Fiduciary Responsibility: Serious Business

That single board hiring decision served as the catalyst for hundreds of subsequent decisions. Decisions made by the executive director. Decisions made by the board of directors. Decisions made by the executive director and the board together as the organization’s stewards. Perhaps even decisions not to make decisions or contemplate crucial issues because of an absence of true leadership and strategic thinking.

The definition of fiduciary – to hold something in trust for future generations – is something I share with every board of directors as part of every engagement. It is fundamental to a board’s responsibility. Sometimes, though, thoughtful, well-meaning individuals who care about an organization and believe in the mission don’t do enough.

How did the leadership team of executive director and board of directors let this happen? It is an executive director’s job to raise issues with the board – even, or especially, troubling ones. It is the board’s responsibility to probe and ask questions of the executive director to gain deeper understanding of the issues facing the organization. Neither party can be asleep at the wheel. Each has to hold the other accountable. And if the executive director isn’t up to the task or the board of directors doesn’t have the right complement of members around the table…what then?

All In!

As we start this new year, let’s each of us resolve to be all in as nonprofit executives, board members, funders, donors, contributors, and consultants. Let’s promise ourselves, each other, and the clients we serve, that we will not shy away from the hard work of making difficult decisions and thinking boldly about the future.

Amy Wishnick

About the Contributor: Amy Wishnick

Amy Wishnick is passionate about organizations.

With skill, sensitivity, and good humor, Amy works with diverse organizations to enhance their management, leadership, and adaptive capacities to be more effective.

Since founding Wishnick & Associates in 2004, she has worked with an array of nonprofit clients on strategic planning, organizational assessments, executive transition and succession planning, board development, and more.

Wishnick & Associates works successfully with nonprofit organizations of all sizes and budgets. Clients include human services agencies, arts, cultural, education, workforce, and community development organizations, associations, religious organizations, and foundations.

Amy began her career in Washington, DC at the National Endowment for the Humanities where she managed a portfolio of research grants to libraries and archives. Upon returning to Chicago, she was the recruiting coordinator at Mayer Brown & Platt, an international law firm. There she managed all recruiting from law schools and lateral hiring. She consulted with the branch offices to set up their recruiting programs as the firm expanded.

Immediately prior to starting Wishnick & Associates, Amy spent seven years at CMC Consultants, a boutique executive search firm. There she consulted with nonprofits, foundations, higher education institutions, financial services organizations, law firms, trading firms, family offices, and manufacturing companies.

Amy has served on and chaired numerous nonprofit boards. She currently is on the KAM Isaiah Israel Foundation board, which oversees the synagogue’s endowment, and she chaired the rabbinic transition committee in 2013 to 2014.

From 1993 to 1995, Amy had the unique opportunity to serve on the United States Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, a committee of civilian volunteers appointed to advise the Secretary of Defense. As a member of the executive committee, Amy designed and implemented a training program for new committee members on how to conduct domestic military installation site visits to gain deeper understanding of career opportunities, forces utilization, and quality-of-life issues for women. She also served as the primary author of two reports for the Secretary of Defense highlighting findings and making recommendations from the executive committee’s overseas trips to military installations in Europe (1994) and Asia (1995).

Amy was president of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits from July 2009 to June 2011. She joined the organization in 2004 and was a member of the board from 2006 to 2012. She coauthored the association’s 2013 publication, Nonprofit Leader’s Guide to Hiring and Engaging Consultants.

She is also an advisor member of Forefront (formerly Donors Forum).

Amy is a member of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management Advisory Committee. She teaches strategic planning at Axelson’s annual BootCamp for New Nonprofit CEOs.

In addition, Amy serves on the selection committee for the Alford-Axelson Awards for Managerial Excellence.

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