The Control Freak Executive Director

by Joan Garry

Joan responds to a reader, the President of the board of a nonprofit, who is frustrated with her overly controlling executive director.

Get Joan’s latest advice delivered to your inbox each week. Click here to sign up.

Got a burning question for Joan? Submit your questions and comments here.

Dear Joan,

I have an ED that keeps trying to control both me as President as well as other Board Members. She insists I run things by her first, even when it’s an ongoing board discussion or a clearly identified board issue. Additionally, she insists that she attends any meeting I have with a potential funder, despite the fact the funder is a connection through me.

For months now we [board members] have all been struggling with her trying to control everything. Committees make suggestions concerning items they are tasked to oversee and she gets rigid and angry that they are “interfering.” In addition, she has dropped the ball on areas she is responsible for… promises to corporate sponsors, correcting financial reports where the bookkeeper made a mistake, etc. She won’t stay focused on her domain.

It isn’t so simple to just fire her. She’s very good in so many other ways but the insanity and the too often daily meltdowns are troublesome and time consuming. When we try to talk with her about this, her constant mantra is, “But it impacts me!” What should we do?

– Fed Up With My Controlling Executive Director

Dear Fed Up,

Sometimes I feel more like a therapist than a consultant. Your email almost sounds like it comes from somebody in a bad romantic relationship. “She’s verbally abusive and I’m constantly walking on egg shells with her. You never know what might set her off. But she has such beautiful eyes and I can’t imagine not being with her.”

But before we decide that you should obviously “just dump her,” let’s first take a deeper dive into this particular situation. First, the bad.

  • It seems like she doesn’t get just how good she has it. Most E.D.s would do a happy dance just at the thought of a Board Chair having a meeting with a potential donor. Seriously, I get more complaints about board members who don’t fundraise than any other topic.
  • Getting ‘rigid and angry’ with the folks who are responsible for your annual performance review and ultimately whether you keep your job seems like poor form to me. Just sayin’.
  • “Too often daily meltdowns?” Wow. Another big flag. Would you take this kind of behavior from a staffer at your day job? I certainly hope not, no matter how valuable the staffer is.
  • Just like an abusive significant other, it’s clear the board is intimidated by the E.D. Wrong dynamic.


This all sounds pretty bad. I’m not saying otherwise.

But there is a flip side. Her constant mantra: “But it impacts me.” Maybe it seems paranoid. But in this case, she is absolutely right.

Considering my own experience as the E.D. at GLAAD, I was very involved in the workings of my board – who we recruited, who should be in the board leadership pipeline, pushing for a higher give/get policy. The list goes on.

And there was a good reason for it.

I could not be a rockstar E.D. without a rockstar board. No E.D. can.

So you do want an E.D. who is very involved with the board. But when is it too much?


So what does “very involved” look like? Where are the lines? When does it stop being healthy? And when it becomes unhealthy, who is to blame? A controlling Executive Director? Or a board that is asleep at the switch?

1) The E.D. prepares the agenda for the board meeting. Should the E.D. have input? You betcha. But should the E.D. drive the agenda while the board chair sits idly by? No way. As a board chair, it is YOUR board meeting.

Assuming quarterly meetings, the board chair and E.D. should meet and talk about the core elements that will make the upcoming board meeting successful and plan agenda items around that. As board chair, you should insist on some element of interactivity so that the board can actually ask questions and become engaged.

2) The E.D. behaves like a big baby during the annual review process. E.D.’s out there: remember you are being reviewed by a bunch of volunteers. It will be imperfect. Nonprofits are messy, remember? You will never hear all the good positive stroking you deserve. So stop feeling so insecure and be open to constructive criticism.

3) The E.D. severely limits staff interaction and discussion about performance. Listen up E.D.s – Yes, staff management is your purview. But, a board needs to know about issues that have an impact on the effectiveness of your organization.

So the best way to include your board is to provide a staffing overview in executive session. Proactively offer details like open positions, hiring challenges, and personnel issues. Then let them weigh in and ask questions. Let them know who’s doing a great job too. You have to let your board in on HR. It is the people who do the work.

4) When the E.D. drives all the committee work. If your committee chairs feel disempowered or become disengaged, double check that it isn’t because the E.D. has taken over

5) When the board gives the E.D. too much power. Seems obvious but power has to be held in the organization. If the board cedes its power, a controlling Executive Director will fill the void.


Not an easy question. The founding fathers of the U.S. government did their level best to create a balance of power and see where that’s gotten us?

But here are a few thoughts for you board chairs out there.

1) Own your power. Remember, the buck ultimately starts with you. Whether s/he likes it or not, you are the ultimate authority. Don’t forget that. Maybe the E.D. is grabbing power because you aren’t owning yours.

2) Talk to your fellow board members. Take their pulse on this; engage them in a discussion about owning their power. It’s time to stop being afraid of your E.D.

3) Shift in small and intentional steps. Start with the board meeting. Ask for a draft agenda well in advance. Indicate that you want to dedicate a meeting to review the draft far enough ahead so the two of you together can define success for the meeting. Board meetings are critical to the creation of board cohesion and giving board members what they need to be successful champions for your organization. You need to advocate for that.

One last note (saving the best for last): The single most important indicator of the health of a nonprofit is the relationship between the executive director and the board chair. The key word here is relationship. Try to make it work.

And if you can’t, it may be time to vote this E.D. off the island.

— Joan

6 thoughts on “The Control Freak Executive Director”

  1. Once again you nailed it Joan! Communication is the key to all relationships, especially the Board/ED one. Keeping each other informed doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a control issue (on either side) it’s common courtesy and a good practice. As I often say “God invented the delete key for a reason.”

  2. Hey Craig. Thanks for weighing in. Hope it’s clear in my writing that the road runs both ways. Sometimes ED’s become control freaks because their board has been asleep at the switch. This piece is all about the creation of smart balance between board and staff.

  3. How do you change the dynamic if it’s the opposite and as the ED I have no say in anything? I’m the first paid employee in my small non profit affiliate and just celebrated my first year anniversary. It’s been rough trying to get my board to understand what my role is. How do I begin to make the changes that are necessary so we can succeed

  4. Are there ANY pro bono resources in your area -someone who could come in and do a 1 hour session? Or is there one board member who is equally frustrated who might take this on (not you) and go look for and present documents found online that help the board better understand its role vis a vis the ED? You may not be the right messenger. Good luck!

Leave a Comment