Evaluator, do no harm

CEO evaluation in the hands of a well-meaning, but inexperienced, board is a fearsome thing. The nonprofit landscape – including territories occupied by faith-based organizations — is littered with the sorry remains of careers done in by performance reviews gone wrong.  Yet evaluate boards must, which begs advice on how to do it right.

When talking with board leaders about CEO evaluation, I urge prayer, care, and attention to a few basic principles – which I just happen to have outlined in an article in In Trust magazine. You can read the piece online, but here’s the gist of my advice to boards (in this instance, of theological schools).


Whether evaluation of the president is mandated in the by-laws, out-lined in the employment agreement, or is the outgrowth of an informal agreement between board leadership and the head of the school, the board’s commitment to providing regular and thoughtful performance reviews is key to the long-term success of a presidency.


Although a seeming godsend for a busy board, off-the-shelf assessment instruments are not necessarily the best choice. Prepackaged instruments don’t capture the nuances of a specific presidency or institutional situation. Every five years or so, the board may want to contract with an outside facilitator for a more comprehensive review of the president’s performance, But on an annual basis, simple is best.


In the way it conducts the evaluation, the board has the opportunity to engender trust, openness, and greater collegiality within the seminary community. And as the board takes responsibility for the evaluation process, the membership gains a better understanding for the president’s job, what he or she does every day.


We can plan until the cows come home and still things go wrong. But keeping watch for the following potential pitfalls goes a long way in warding off trouble.

  • Failing to bring definition and consistency to the process.
  • Judging a whole year’s work on a single incident, good or bad.
  • Failing to prioritize expectations of the president and for the institution.
  • Rating personality traits above performance.
  • Refusing to say anything critical.
  • Refusing to say anything good.
  • Leaving evaluation up to the board chair alone.

Seasoned CEOs attest that nothing says “we care” like a board’s commitment to providing regular evaluation that helps, not harms.


  1. Rhoda Keener says:

    This is a very helpful entry in Generous Matters. As a 10 year Executive Director of a faith based non-profit and now a Co-Executive Director in the same organization, I believe boards need training from someone other than the CEO to do careful helpful evaluations. Feedback that both supports efforts and challenges the leader to new growth is critical for a position where often a leader is working without peer support available. Thanks for this post. Rhoda Keener, Co-Executive Director, Mennonite Women USA

  2. This is so true. Sadly, church boards are often guilty of this as well.
    John F. Martin, Program Officer, Butterfield Memorial Foundation

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