Thursday, August 25, 2011

What’s in a Title?

I am consulting with a small social justice organization which is about to hire a “CEO” and I have been giving a lot of thought to issues of titles.  Maybe I feel bad because I have never been a Chief Executive Officer, although I have worked in and around nonprofits for 35 years and have been the head person at several.  Long ago, before we knew the power of titles, the director of a nonprofit was simply called the “director.”   Later that title seemed too lightweight and nonprofits started using “executive director.”  I have been a Director and an Executive Director and I did make more money when I was the Executive Director.  Some organizations then began use the word “President” which meant that we could no longer call the President of the Board “President” so that person became a “Chair.” Somehow it seems a little bit of a demotion to go from “President” to “Chair”, but perhaps it is better than becoming the “Table”, which is often what the Chair did: tabled the motion, or put something on the table. Some friends of mine have held the title, “President and Executive Director” and now I know people who are the “President and CEO.”

These titles are all borrowed from the corporate world.  If I were to borrow titles, I would have probably used titles from a monarchy which are a lot more fun:  Duke, Knight, Princess, King and Queen, or from the big gorilla of nonprofits-- the Church --with their Bishops, Cardinals, Right Reverends, Monsignors and so on.  Or we could borrow from the military and be generals, admirals, colonels and the like. But nonprofits are not like the military, the church or the monarchy: we are like corporations and we name ourselves after them.

The organization I’ve been working with decided to use “CEO” instead of Executive Director because they thought they would attract more qualified people.  Whether this is the case remains to be seen, but they now grapple with the fact the people who want to be “CEOs” want the pay that comes with that title, and they may not be able to afford such a person.

What is the harm in calling someone a CEO?  In the larger scheme of things, perhaps there is none.  However, if the nonprofit sector, particularly the social justice subset of that, takes seriously our job which is to raise issues of the common good, and to promote rough social equity, we have to think seriously about where we are getting our ideas.  With all this title inflation, you would think we would see a commensurate decrease in poverty and oppression, but this is not the case, and that may be a clue that modeling ourselves after corporations will simply move us to a more and more corporate controlled society.   We name our children very carefully—should we not name the jobs we do to build a healthy society for them to be raised in just as carefully? 


SPSmith said...

Let me start by saying, I love Kim Klein and use Fundraising for Social Change as text for my fundraising classes at Northeastern U. Regarding "What's in a Title?", I like the idea behind the fearless leader of the nonprofit having the CEO title. From my experience, it's nice on the business card when going to meet a peer leader of a for-profit outfit. For me, it demonstrates that the nonprofit board get the symbolism of authority when sitting among other muckety-mucks. Compensation should be fair and equitable based on the particular nonprofit marketplace. We're not paying the nonprofit CEO on par with the for-profit realm. But I do vote for title equity when sitting among other corporate leaders. No need to shrink from the title. Wear it with pride.

Alexa Bradley said...

Say it Sister! I fear that ever since we decided to define social change work by the moniker "non-profit", essentially defining ourselves in relationship to the for-profit universe rather than civil society, or even the public sector, we have unconsciously become more and more like our non-namesake. We want to "brand" our work, we want to be more quantitative and metrics based, we focus on management competencies more than creating transformation or movement leadership development. As we become more and more professionalized (granted some was really necessary - I do have experience some bad organizational dynamics) using the corporate model as our magnetic north, I wonder if we are losing clarity about our purpose? Are we just trying to run well oiled non-profits or are we trying to create vehicles that enable a larger and larger circle of people to have power and dignity in our world?

Kim Klein said...

I really like both these comments even though they are very different. This is exactly the kind of conversation we need to be having.
SPSmith, thanks for your kind words about my book, and for pointing out that title equity can be a good idea.
Alexa--thanks for raising the larger issue of professionalization and the pros and cons of that.