At our nonprofit conference last week, themed “The nonprofit leaders’ journey from ordinary to extraordinary: Tell me something I don’t know,” Pegine Grayson, vice president of Philanthropic Services at Whittier Trust, was one of our panelists. After the conference I asked Pegine if I could capture some of her insightful reflections.

Donella: When asked to describe a situation where you had observed someone moving from ordinary to extraordinary, you told the story of a Board member who stepped out of his comfort zone, to take on a challenging situation. What are some of the qualities and attributes that enabled that transition to take place?

Pegine: Yes, I described Jeff Davidson, who at the time I was serving as executive director of the Western Center on Law & Poverty was the managing partner of Kirkland & Ellis' LA office and brand new to my Board. As a new executive director, I had laid out my vision for the organization's future and described the level of Board commitment it would take to get there, however the long-serving Board chair stepped down saying he liked my vision, but it wasn't what he had signed up for. I immediately approached Jeff, who at first turned me down, humbly saying he was too new to the Board and would feel uncomfortable stepping right into a leadership role when so many others had been serving for years. But, along with several of those same long-serving directors, I eventually won him over. Working together for four years, I learned an incredible amount from Jeff, who always led by example, didn't shy away from a challenge, never asked anything of his fellow directors that he wasn't already doing himself, maintained a sense of humor and was eminently competent in a self-effacing way. He was instrumental in transforming our Board, because high-quality people just wanted to be a member of his "club."

Donella: You just described a wonderful Board chair, which is definitely key to successful governance. What do you think are the key attributes of a successful chief executive officer of a nonprofit organization?

Pegine: Well, my glib response at the conference was "they need to be perfect in every way!" And I was only half kidding. As unfair as it is, I think we do expect nonprofit executives to be all things to all people. During my nonprofit consulting days, I handled a number of executive searches and there was always a moment in time, as we were putting the finishing touches on the job announcement, when someone on the search committee would say, "My God – we're really describing someone superhuman here. I hope you all know we'll never find anyone with ALL of these attributes!" And then we'd engage in a ranking process to see which ones were essential and which could be learned on the job. Having been in that chair (the CEO) on both the nonprofit and foundation side, I do have my own "Top 4" list that I'll share (aside from the obvious "impeccable communicator" and "high executive function"):

  1. First and foremost, a successful CEO needs to be a visionary. No matter how "successful" we feel, the moment we get complacent marks the beginning of stagnation and possibly unsustainability down the line. Successful leaders are always looking out three to five years and asking "what steps are necessary now in order to get there?"
  2. We need to be humble and curious. Even though everyone expects us to be decisive, we actually DON'T have all the answers, and we pretend otherwise at our peril. There are A LOT of people around us who have wisdom and experience in areas where we lack it, and being open to tapping into that will ensure that the decisions we do ultimately make are sound and well-reasoned.
  3. Nonprofit leaders should work to empower and invest in their staff. Too many of us let our egos get in the way, requiring, for example, that all press inquiries go through us or taking credit for accomplishments that our staff members actually made happen. When an executive can step back and encourage her staff – who, by the way, are working incredibly hard for much lower pay than they might earn in the private sector – and let them have their moment to shine and acknowledge publicly their important contributions, she is building a loyal staff that will be proud to support its CEO and much more effective ambassadors for the organization.
  4. Finally, successful CEOs understand that a highly effective and professional Board can be one of their greatest assets. We've all seen situations where long-serving nonprofit executives – often founders – get too invested in continuing to do things the way they've always done them, and they intentionally build Boards that will give them full reign and rubberstamp their proposals. Nonprofits are living, breathing organisms, and stagnation is never healthy. An effective CEO will work to build a Board comprised of people he respects and who will not only support him but also hold his feet to the fire, inspiring him to be the best he can be.

About Donella Wilson (partner at GHJ)

Donella has over 17 years of public accounting experience providing audit, accounting and special project services. She is a frequent guest lecturer and conference speaker on nonprofit financial management and governance issues, and as an Adjunct Professor, has taught Nonprofit Financial Management at USC’s School of Public Policy, Planning and Development.

Wilson Donella halfbody

Donella Wilson

Donella Wilson, CPA, leads GHJ’s Nonprofit Practice and is also President and Chief Philanthropy Officer of GHJ Foundation, GHJ’s vehicle for purposeful and proactive giving to the community. A leader in both the nonprofit and accounting communities, Donella was named a finalist in the 2021 Los…Learn More