Monday, June 7, 2010

What’s in a Name? Benefits of the President/CEO Title

In a bit of an unusual step, I am posting this article in two parts because of the length.  Eugene Fram brings us a topic worthy of discussion.  Certainly game changing, the decision to use Chief Executive Officer versus Executive Director, can say a lot about the organization and even more about the job description of the person at the top.  Perhaps it's time to look at all your organizational titles and give them an update where necessary.  Bunnie

What’s in a Name? Benefits of the President/CEO Title
by Eugene Fram, Professor Emeritus, E. Philip Saunders College of Business of the Rochester Institute of Technology

Over the last 100 years, senior managers of nonprofits typically have held the executive director title. For about the last 30 years, many nonprofits have changed the title to president/CEO, following a common business practice. Many more nonprofits need to consider the same change to obtain some subtle but useful organizational benefits.

A recent study reports that only 22 percent of trade association chief staff officers hold the president/CEO title. For professional societies, the proportion is only 9 percent.1 Many chief staff officers in larger faith-based human service and health-related organizations still hold the executive director title. Even the senior manager of Carnegie Hall in New York City still carries the executive director title.

A wide range of nonprofits use the executive director title: churches, human service agencies, trade associations, and medical facilities. An executive director can be the only manager in a church with an annual budget of $200,000, or be the head of a medical facility with a $10 million annual budget and 200 employees. These significant differences in responsibility levels can serve to:

1. demean the significant contributions of many executive directors in the eyes of some important audiences, and

2. minimize audience perceptions of the contributions of their organizations.

The Executive Director in Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofit senior mangers are called, “executive director" instead of "chief executive officer" in order to avoid the business connotation which the latter name evokes. … It also distinguishes them from … members of the (volunteer) board of directors from non-executive directors who are not actively involved in running the corporation.”2

Using the title of executive director made sense during the early part of the 20th century when nonprofit organizations were modest ones with a handful of employees, and volunteers regularly filled managerial or service roles. As late as the 1960s, one occasionally witnessed volunteer board members having internal operational roles. Those who advocate for the continued use of the executive director title argue that use of the title is empirical evidence of board involvement in the activities of the organization. However, the negative side of the argument is that continued use of the title leads to board micromanagement of operations, which stunts organizational growth.

Nonprofit organizations became larger and more complex in the latter part of the 20th century. Local professional societies became regional organizations; hospitals became regional health-care systems; and so on. The proportion of volunteers involved in management operations and staff work declined. Consequently the trend to use the president/CEO title became more appealing to focus operational responsibility on management and staff. If properly structured, the title requires the chair and CEO to develop a more trusting professional relationship and assures the stakeholders of higher levels of performance. Organization results become focused on outcomes, not process.

The President/CEO in Nonprofit Organizations

In the latter part of the 20th century, business organizations began to add the title of CEO to the title of either their president position or board chair position.3 The objective was to clearly designate which of the two had final operational authority, except for those actions which are reserved by the firm’s bylaws for the board (usually acquisitions, pension plans, and long term contracts). In the business environment, as contrasted to the nonprofit environment, both the chair and the president can be corporation employees.

About 1980, nonprofit organizations began to mirror business organizations managerially. Many developed marketing departments, installed complex information technology, and a few even hired experienced business executives to head their organizations. The older philosophy, listed above, of “avoiding the businesses connection” was quickly being eroded. Today, specialized programs operated by many associations prepare aspiring nonprofit executives to advance through managerial positions to presidential positions.

Nonprofit boards, after 1980, when hiring new senior managers, offered titles of president/CEO4 and made bylaw provisions for other persons in the senior management teams to become vice presidents.

Nonprofit board chairs can do their job well without final CEO operating authority. Traditionally, chairs are volunteer personnel who should focus board activities on strategic issues not operational concerns. Some president/CEOs even became voting members of their boards, if permitted by their state laws. It was not unusual for some incumbent executive directors to seek the new title, if it was politically expedient. However, many conservative boards still look upon the change as a managerial power grab, which evidently has slowed the change process.

Nearly three decades have passed since the early adopters made the first changes. Yet, as indicated before, there are still thousands of complex nonprofits operationally headed by managers holding the executive director title, although these persons may have robust and complex operational duties.

Changing the title of the chief staff officer to president/CEO can positively influence:

1. the organization’s internal and external perceptions,

2. its culture, and

3. its financial growth.

1. Mark Alcorn, “Evolving Titles for Association Executives,” Articles & Whitepapers, ASAE, September 2006.

2. See Non-executive directors are volunteers who mentor or advise an operating division within the nonprofit, such as the development office.

3. In the nonprofit corporation, the board chair is usually an unpaid volunteer who also might hold the CEO title, indicating that person has final operational authority.

Eugene Fram, Ed.D, is professor emeritus at the E. Philip Saunders College of Business of the Rochester Institute of Technology. In 2008, Fram was awarded the university’s Presidential Medallion for Outstanding Service, and in 1997 he received Rochester Institute of Technology’s highest award for outstanding teaching.

Now semi-retired in California, Fram continues to add to his published list of more than 100 articles, is involved in for-profit and nonprofit consulting, and is frequently quoted in newspapers, magazines and blogs. Marketing, corporate governance, and nonprofit management are his major expertise areas.


  1. I appreciate this article...but is there any difference between executive director and CEO without the President glued on to it?

  2. This kind of answers some questions but leaves other's unanswered. I am being told that CEO means the person is a voting member of the board and the ED means they are not. I contend that the board hired the person whatever they're called and that person should not become a voting member of the board that hired him. Any thoughts?

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  4. This article assumes that there is a negative and less professional connotation associated with the title Executive Director as opposed to the title CEO. Given the recent dissatisfaction with big business, it might be argued that the opposite is true.

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  6. I feel like I never got an answer to the question. Just a over-complicated and slightly hard to follow explanation of "use President/CEO instead of Executive Director". If he/you had given a Pros/Cons list for each side and more clearly (and used normal everyday talk) defined what each "title" typically means and does, that would have been more helpful. And what about the small and start-up charities that only have the one person who starts it as a worker/employee? No board of directors, no officers, no volunteers; just the one person?