Lynn Erdman – Nonprofit Boards – Best Practices

“I am not a fan of the CEO staying around in an advisory or emeritus role.  That can be a recipe for disaster.  The outgoing CEO needs to make a clean break from the organization.” -Lynn Erdman

[00:00:00] Lynn Erdman: I’m a huge believer in adding young people to the board. In fact, I did that right before I left my last CEO position. I had interviewed a young lady who happened to have a great position in the city where I was working and I can remember suggesting her to the board and saying, I think she would be a great addition and I can remember the faces like, are you kidding? She’s in her twenties. And I can’t see where she can contribute. 

I talked to her recently and talked to one of the board members recently, and she is a star on the board and has brought all types of things to the organization.


Tommy Thomas: Today, we’re continuing the conversation that we began with Lynn Erdman in Episode 104.   Lynn started her career as a floor nurse and worked her way up to senior leadership in the hospital. Over the course of her career, she also held senior leadership positions with the Carolina’s Healthcare System, American Cancer Society, and Susan B Komen for the Cure. She has also served as the CEO of two healthcare nonprofits. Not only has she reported to nonprofit boards, but she has served and continues to serve on nonprofit boards. Let’s pick up the conversation where we left off in Episode 104.

[00:01:20] Tommy Thomas: Let’s move over to board service because you’ve served on a lot of boards and currently serve on a variety of boards, I just want to get some of your insights. Let me begin with a friend of mine, Dr. Rebecca Basinger, and her thoughts on governing boards. She says governing boards are charged with safeguarding an institution’s ability to fulfill its mission with economic vitality.

To this, I would add responsibility for attending to the soul of the institution. When you think of the purpose of a governing board, what are you thinking about?

[00:01:56] Lynn Erdman: Definitely if you’re a governing board, you need to make sure that the institution, what it’s built on, what it’s founded on, all of that is intact and being followed as it should be. And you’re really simply overseeing the operation, but not the details of the actual functioning of whatever organization that you’re looking at.

I serve on the board of trustees for a university right now, and we are really a governing body. We are overseeing, making sure that we get reports on the finances, we get reports on the changes in academics, but we really are not there to make all of those changes. We’re simply there to oversee and make sure and ensure that people that are investing and paying to come to this particular university, that the governing part of it is in good shape.

[00:02:58] Tommy Thomas: The Board Chair is such a critical responsibility. Give me some words and phrases that in your mind describe a great Board Chair.

[00:03:09] Lynn Erdman: Someone who is willing to ask a question, someone who is very insightful, someone who trusts others around them, and someone who will look farther than many other people who are sitting around him or her.

In other words, they will delve very deeply into a particular issue and they pull good people around them. That to me is a really good leader. You can’t have all of the skills. So, if you’re forming a board they have to have skills that you do not have yourself so that you can ensure that all the skills that are needed are sitting around the table.

[00:03:56] Tommy Thomas:   You served on several boards. How is that most effectively accomplished? How do you fill out the board with all the board needs?

[00:04:07] Lynn Erdman: I sit on a different board right now with another university and we actually use a committee as well as the board, the entire board, to look at where we have holes or gaps in what we are trying to accomplish, and we actually have made a grid and we look at it and then we seek out those areas where we really do not have the strength we need to have. For example, we’re looking for a legislator, a state legislator because of several of the things that are going on that would be a great addition to this particular board.

So how do we go about it? And then collect ideas. As if you’re brainstorming, from everybody at the table, people have got ideas, they’ve got connections, they’ve got the ability to tap other people and find out information as well. So I find using the people you’ve got around you helps as well.

[00:05:11] Tommy Thomas: What are the best practices you’ve observed on onboarding?

[00:05:17] Lynn Erdman: The best orientation I’ve seen is one I saw recently, where they not only got to meet the top people in this particular organization, but they got to actually see the mission at hand. So, if the mission was to take care of homeless people, for example, then they got to see that in action while they were going through their orientation.

And then they had not only information presented to them, but they had a great opportunity to ask questions about every section of the information that was presented. And that actually, because I’ve seen lots of meetings and I’ve been in lots of them where it was Board onboarding and you get a book, you get information, you’re supposed to read it ahead of time, you come, you have a pretty brief session, you go through some of the finances, some of the things that people don’t even understand because they haven’t gotten on the board and you’re done with your board.

And that, I find leads to the first time they show up at a board meeting, they don’t have any way to contribute. And if there’s a way to get them more ingrained in the whole organization and what it exists for, then the contributions that the person, the new board member, can provide. I find it much more robust.


[00:06:44] Tommy Thomas:  Somebody is considering joining a nonprofit board. What kind of questions should they be asking themselves or should they have answered before they say yes?

[00:06:53] Lynn Erdman: They need to know if they believe in what that organization, that nonprofit is doing because if they don’t, then there’s no reason for them to join the board.

What I’ve seen over the years, and what always annoys me, is somebody joining a board to have their name on the letterhead or to add that piece of board responsibility, or board accolade to their resume. And that is just all the wrong reasons to be on a board. If you’re really interested in bettering yourself and serving on something, then why do I wish to do that?

I can remember interviewing somebody not too long ago who wanted to join a board. One of the first things she told me was that she wanted to be involved in the community. And then I said, but why this board? And then she got into why. And it made plenty of sense because of her experience and the fact that she had lost a relative with what this organization was focused on.

If you’ve got a passion, then indeed you should be asking yourself, can I contribute? Do I have time? And will I put the time into it if I commit?

[00:08:13] Tommy Thomas:  I’d like to get your thoughts on bringing younger people onto a board. We hear a lot about bringing people in their 30s and 40s into nonprofit board service. I’ve interviewed people who have been pro that, and then I’ve interviewed, surprisingly, two or three people who maybe think that maybe people more my age are supposed to have the wisdom to be on a board.  What are your thoughts there?

[00:08:40] Lynn Erdman: I’m a huge believer in adding young people to the board. In fact, I did that right before I left my last CEO position. I interviewed a young lady who happened to have a great position in the city where I was working and I can remember suggesting her to the board and saying, I think she would be a great addition and I can remember the faces like, are you kidding?

She’s in her twenties. And I can’t see where she can contribute. I talked to her recently and talked to one of the board members recently, and she is a star on the board and has brought all types of things to the organization. So I always believe in, and part of the reason is, if you get people younger than the average age on your board, they’re going to bring something new, innovative, and thought-provoking to your conversation. I promise they will because they’re going to ask things that we live in our world, that we might not be thinking of because they see whatever from a 30-year-old viewpoint versus the average age of the board. It can make a huge difference.

[00:09:56] Tommy Thomas: I’d like you to respond to this quote.

You need a director on the board who will be a pleasant irritant. Someone who will force the board to think a little differently. That’s what a good board does.

[00:10:06] Lynn Erdman: I totally agree. And the reason is, if everyone on the board agrees all the time, then number one, you’re never going to get anything done, or you’re going to keep doing the same thing you’ve always been doing.

You’ve got to have some type of catalyst or a person on the board that is going to challenge. And oftentimes, if you’re sitting on the board, you think, oh, that’s irritating. I know Susie’s going to come up with that. Or I know Frank’s going to say something because there’s no way we’re going to get through this discussion.

But if you’re open, it always gets you to a different place. Even if you end up still back with some of what you talked about, it’s opened everyone’s eyes to make sure you’ve thought through the whole process. So yes, I think that’s extremely important.

[00:11:03] Tommy Thomas: How does the board chair draw people into the conversation?

If you’ve got a quiet person on the board and you think you probably wouldn’t, but I’ve been on boards and I’ve consulted where you do. How does a good board chair draw everybody into the conversation?

[00:11:18] Lynn Erdman: I’m a board chair right now for an organization where I have a person, I actually have two, that are very quiet.

And I was hearing from one of the staff members, I don’t think this person’s very interested in being on the board. I thought, let’s don’t jump too quickly. And so if we’re having a discussion where several people are weighing in on a topic, then I will call on this person and say, I want to hear what your thoughts are.

I never put him on the spot because if somebody is quiet like that, oftentimes there’s a reason. They like to think or process. So always let some other people talk, but always include the people that are very quiet and make sure that they’re heard as well, and it’s pretty insightful to get some of the information that comes from them.

[00:12:05] Tommy Thomas: Another quote. The chair and the CEO must learn to dance together. And neither can stray far from each other’s gaze or proceed independently.

[00:12:19] Lynn Erdman: Very true, and you can’t have one that’s the leader and one that’s the follower. They do have to be in sync, they have to dance the same steps, they have to know where the other one is getting ready to turn, and they need to know the hot buttons for each other and they need not push them. They need to say, okay, yeah, I realized that’s going to be a tender spot for him. And so, I’m not going there. I might have a conversation with him afterward about what I’m thinking and see what he’s thinking. But never show that you’re not in unison when you are together.

It’s extremely important because as soon as you do, the board sees anarchy almost within the setup. It’s okay to disagree. I’m not saying you can’t disagree, but you make sure you do it where it’s comfortable and not necessarily always.


[00:13:14] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go to the optimal size of a nonprofit board.

I read a quote, it says, from Ernest Haepel the fewer board members, the better. If it’s 18, I’m just not interested.

[00:13:28] Lynn Erdman: I think you’ve got to have enough members to meet the goals and the needs of the organization. And if you can do that with four or five members and do it well, then I think that’s great.

I find that a good size for most boards is anywhere from 15 to at max 25. But you know, erring on the 15-type side but for boards of trustees for universities I find that you end up with usually over 20. Simply because you need people from a lot of different areas, but you also need people who are going to fundraise for you.

It’s extremely important when you get your board too small in any type of organization, and you’re always interested in finance and money, then you can’t make it work. So, I think you’ve got to have diversity too. And the smaller the boards you have, the less diversity you have.

[00:14:31] Tommy Thomas: What about the reality of the executive session on a board?

How, you’re chairing some, you’re serving, what are you seeing there?

[00:14:43] Lynn Erdman: At one of the universities where I’m on the board of trustees, I find that we do executive sessions. The President of the university stays for the first part of the executive session, and then we always discuss his performance.

So he leaves the room, and then we continue with executive discussion for the last 15 minutes or whatever. And it’s always about his performance at that point, and he’s not present there. And then the board chair communicates back to him if there’s something that needs to be shared at that point in time.

So it’s always, I find executive session kind of two-part. And I think it’s always good if you can have the leader of the organization present for at least a portion of it, but all the staff leave. So that’s where I find an executive session, to me, that’s what it means. All staff leave except for the head of the organization.

[00:15:41] Tommy Thomas: Let’s talk about the CEO evaluation there. What best practices have you observed?

[00:15:48] Lynn Erdman: I have observed several. I’ve observed some worse practices too, but from a best practice standpoint, it’s when every board member contributes, even if it’s a written evaluation where you’re checking boxes and making comments, that type of thing, and you compile those and then the board gets to see that back and meets and gets to talk about comments before it’s ever given to the president of the organization. I find that works the best and that you’ve got time to think through and that you actually have an evaluation that is done that’s got some great critiques of the work that they’ve done, but it’s also got some constructive criticism where that they can improve that is tangible and that is doable. You can’t just tell somebody you don’t like something. What do you really want to see them accomplish? Spell that out so that it can be understandable. 

[00:16:55] Tommy Thomas:   Does the CEO, does the board chair, deliver that or who does deliver it?

[00:17:04] Lynn Erdman: I think it’s too intimidating for the entire board. I’ve seen it done with a small group, two or three people doing it as well. But I think that you’ve got to have that relationship with the board chair and head of organization as well. So that works well to be able to have that type of conversation where the board, Chair, and the president can talk freely so the president can say wait, that really hurts me or I hear it, but help me think through this instead of being in a group of people saying that’s the way you feel.

So there needs to be at least some trust and some support of the person in that senior role.

[00:17:49] Tommy Thomas: How are you using the committee structure on some of your boards right now?

I use task forces for projects that have a beginning and an end.  When the project is complete, we sunset the task force.  Committees are sustaining and usually serve for a long period of time.

[00:17:55] Lynn Erdman: Definitely, I’ve got task forces and committees. So I use a task force if it’s a project that has got a beginning and an end to it. And then I can get something done. The task force may run for a year. It could run for longer, but I use them for that. And then committees are going to be something that is sustaining and that is going to run over a period of time. And I find that works really well. Then I can sunset task forces and say, and even, show, okay, this was the goal.

This is what we did. And this was the outcome. Then committees continue and report throughout the process. And oftentimes their goals can change too, but they’re standing and they’re going to continue. It’s always good to think about which committees you need at the end of every fiscal year. Are the committees still valid? And if not, what needs to be added or what needs to be changed for those committees?

[00:19:02] Tommy Thomas: Give me some pros and cons on term limits.

I am a big believer in term limits on nonprofit Boards.

[00:19:06] Lynn Erdman: Oh, I’m a big believer in term limits. Because I’ve been on boards where people were on it indefinitely. In fact, in one of the recent CEO positions I had a board member on there who had been on there indefinitely.

And it was like, okay, how are we going to do this? And yes I think that three-year terms are good. I think two-year terms are very quick. You get on, you barely figure out what it is, you’ve got a second year and you’re done. So I’m a proponent of three years and a recurring if you want to do six and then you got to step off at least for a year if not longer.

[00:19:49] Tommy Thomas: Philosophically, are you in favor of the boards being involved in the strategic planning or should that be the CEO’s job to do that or have it done and bring it to the board?

[00:20:00] Lynn Erdman: I’m in favor of a two-prong approach. I believe the staff should do the strategic plan with the CEO and then bring it to the board and the board should have a discussion about it.

And the reason I say that is they’re going to be the ones that have to carry it out. They’re the ones who have their feet on the ground. They’re seeing all the needs every day. I always want boards to weigh in and say, what do you think needs to be in the strategic plan? What things would you want to see?

But I think it’s a joint effort between staff. I’ve seen it done where the board has been solely responsible for the strategic plan. Staff had no input and then watching it be carried out is not a pretty picture.


[00:20:43] Tommy Thomas: You and I are old enough to remember the Enron scandal, and then there have been many since then.  Talk to me about fiscal responsibility and the board.

The Board must take fiscal responsibility seriously.  You have to have people who have the courage to ask the hard questions.

[00:20:56] Lynn Erdman: Yes that is the board’s responsibility. Fiscally, it’s important. I was with an organization, and this was several years ago, where the board did not take their fiscal responsibility into play. Just trusted the numbers that came out, did not look any deeper than that. And there was actually money being siphoned off by leadership.

And it really almost destroyed, in fact, did destroy for a number of years. The organization has to look deep. You have to ask the questions. You’ve got to have people on your board that are going to ask the questions. You have to share the finances and you have to be open and honest when there are troubles. It’s okay to have a whistleblower. You need to make sure that all the staff know that the policy has to be in place so that somebody can share if they see something in the workplace that the board should know about.

[00:22:06] Tommy Thomas: Where should the board get involved in risk management? Is that a board function?

[00:22:15] Lynn Erdman: I think the board’s responsibility is to, if the organization is going to make a decision to go into something, they need to be looking at all the risks that are there for the organization. And if they’re not doing that, then, and leaving that just to the board and the staff, then you can see it where there’s a disjunction between the board and the leadership, and that’ll destroy an organization too. So anytime anything new is coming into play that’s going to impact the organization, the board has got to be involved, at least knowledgeable enough to ask questions and to know.

[00:23:03] Tommy Thomas: Succession planning is something that I find overlooked a lot. When should the board and the CEO begin to talk about succession planning?

[00:23:13] Lynn Erdman: Depends certainly on the size of the organization, but the best time to do it is at least a year before the person’s going to leave, if not before. I’m with an organization now that started looking two years before.

And, to me, they’ve done it right. Better than anybody I’ve seen with the CEO being extremely honest more than a year out saying, I’m planning to leave the organization, and here are the steps in place so that all the employees know what’s coming and that the board has been working on this thing for a year before that it was even told to the employees.

So that’s when you have a good, healthy organization. When it’s just a surprise, and sometimes that happens if they decide to fire a CEO or whatever, then all of a sudden you haven’t thought through a succession plan. Before a board does that they should know who they’d like to put in place before, even if they’re going to make the decision to let somebody go, they should be thinking through because you can’t decide that the board chair is going to run the organization and if you do, you’re asking for trouble.

[00:24:20] Tommy Thomas: What are the pros and cons of grooming your next CEO from within?

[00:24:28] Lynn Erdman: I certainly think there are many organizations that have quite wonderful talent within the organization and people within an organization always like to see people move up. On the flip side of that, people within an organization don’t always like to say they know the person who’s coming in as CEO, and instead, they think, oh, if it comes from the outside, then we’re all on even playing field.

If it comes from the inside who does this person like, who are they friends with, those types of things. So I think it’s a mixed bag, but there’s always talent within an organization. It never should be overlooked.

[00:25:09] Tommy Thomas: What’s been your experience with the outgoing CEO staying around in an advisory or emeritus role?

I am not a fan of the CEO staying around in an advisory or emeritus role.  That can be a recipe for disaster.  The outgoing CEO needs to make a clean break from the organization.

[00:25:19] Lynn Erdman: It is my experience, personally, has been it’s a disaster. There really needs to be a separation there. If they come back and they’re offering some insight and that type of thing a year later, or something of that nature, but there has to be a clean break. The person that moves in as the CEO has got to be able to make their own decisions without looking over their shoulder and thinking what would that person do if they were sitting here, maybe I should ask them, and then they’re never going to be at the caliber and the level that they potentially could serve most meaningfully.

Yeah, I believe that there needs to be a clean separation. Now, I have seen successful separations where the person that was in that top position came back as, and this happened to be at a university, came back as faculty for a particular course, again, later. And that’s totally different.

They’re not there in an advisory role, but I do think, certainly for a short period of time, if you’re going to have some overlap, that’s different, but when the person is fully taking their position it’s time to separate. 

[00:26:34] Tommy Thomas: I want to bring this to a close by circling back on your career.

You’ve come full circle. You started out in nursing. You’ve risen through the ranks, you’ve started organizations, you’ve been a CEO, and now you’re back as a registered nurse. How does one do that?

[00:26:54] Lynn Erdman: Yeah, I look back on my career, I’ve been extremely blessed, and I’ve had opportunities that have unfolded before me that I really never thought I would have, and certainly would have never thought that as I was coming through college. It’s always been because someone saw something in me that I did not see, or someone believed in me even more than I might have believed in myself. And for those opportunities, I’ve gotten to grow and learn in a whole variety of settings and all of the past number of years have been a non-profit.

But I happened to serve on a board of directors that meant a lot to me and I’ve served on a lot of boards, but this one really touched my heart. Because of the fact that they were dealing with people that were often homeless, but certainly addicted to drugs and alcohol. That’s a type of nursing I have never done.

And so I remained in contact with the CEO of this particular organization over the years, just as friends, and I called the CEO about a year before I knew I was going to retire and said, I’d like to volunteer when I retire. And I wanted to work with the women because that’s where I’ve spent most of my career, with women and women’s health and cancer and those types of things.

And I can remember him looking at me across the coffee cups at the table saying, I have a PRN nurse position. I’d love for you to look at that. And I thought, oh, I just said retirement. Anyway, I looked at it and I thought, oh that would be good. I keep my nursing license and just dabble in this a couple of days a week and sure enough, he was wiser than I was because not only did I retire from a long career of full-time work, but I started doing a day or two a week at this organization and I’m now full time.

And I would tell you that it’s probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I absolutely love it. It’s an incredible way to end my career and an incredible way to do retirement. I have nobody who reports to me, number one, which is a really nice thing. I have lots of people who care about me and I care for and are so grateful for the services that I provide. When you leave work and people are outside, good night nurse Lynn, we love you. Can’t wait to see you tomorrow. You think oh my gosh this was not like it was when I was a CEO, you know, that type of thing. It’s a really nice and wonderful way to use the skills that I’ve had all of this time, but was away from the bedside, now circled all the way back.

A great wrap-up in the group. Yeah, you are really blessed and grateful.

I would tell a younger version of myself to take advantage of opportunities and don’t beat yourself up for making mistakes.  Learn from your mistakes and keep moving.

[00:29:54] Tommy Thomas: If you could go back and tell your younger self something, what would that be?

[00:30:00] Lynn Erdman: I would tell my younger self to take advantage of every opportunity and don’t beat yourself up for the things that you make mistakes in. Because I know I’ve been hard on myself.

I’d come home thinking, how stupid am I? How could I have done that? How did I make that decision? Just roll with it, learn from it, and keep moving.


Tommy Thomas Thank you for joining us today. If you are a first-time listener, I hope you will subscribe and become a regular. You can find links to all the episodes on our website

If there are topics you’d like for me to explore, my email address is [email protected].   Word of mouth has been identified as the most valuable form of marketing. Surveys tell us that consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all other forms of advertising.

If you’ve heard something today that’s worth passing on, please share it with others. You’re already helping me make something special for the next generation of nonprofit leaders. I’ll be back next week with a new episode. Until then, stay the course on our journey to help make the nonprofit sector more effective and sustainable.

“I would tell a younger version of myself to take advantage of opportunities and don’t beat yourself up for making mistakes.  Learn from your mistakes and keep moving.” -Lynn Erdman


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