There is lots of literature on how to manage a nonprofit board and lots of literature on how a board should manage its executive director. These tend to be a list of the important tasks they each oversee, stressing how the board’s job is governance and the executive director’s job is management. Sounds easy enough, right?
So, why is it so hard?
In the realities of organizational life, the line between governance and management is a blurry one. The meatiest issues an organization faces have elements of governance and management that need to be untangled during a process that is rarely linear. On top of that, boards and executive directors sometimes disagree about how the other is managing their duties or who owns the duties in the first place.
We do know that when the work is pursued in a spirit of shared responsibility, the outcome is better. In a true partnership, the board and executive director work through the gray areas, bringing greater clarity to what the real issue is, what decision may need to be made, who that decision belongs to, or if it should be made together.
Like any good working relationship, each party – executive director and board – has to enter with a strong collaborative mindset and with behaviors and processes that support that mindset.
As to the executive director, I see the work less as managing the board and more as enabling them. A significant duty of nonprofit executive directors is to motivate the board to fully inhabit
Here is my list of ways I see great executive directors go about this work:
They respect their board, recognize that a high functioning board is central to a nonprofit’s success, and include them in their work. They provide board members with substantial issues that make good use of their skills.
They provide information that will help the board do its duties, whether that is about the organization’s issue area, communities it works with, or the latest best practices in nonprofit governance. This information is shared in a targeted way – when it is relevant and timely.
They provide structures for fruitful interactions to take place. Committee and board meetings are prepared for in advance and committee and board leadership is included in that planning. They also make time for 1:1 interactions, regular breakfasts, lunches, or Zooms.
They cheerlead when the board is making progress. Remembering that the board’s duties are performed as volunteers, they show appreciation regularly and celebrate success generously.
They connect board members to one another, knowing that the more connected their board members are to each other, the stronger a partnership they will enjoy.
They inspire. Just like staff, donors, and communities, board members need to see the change the leader envisions for the organization. That vision can energize them and help to build a sense of optimism that helps to focus their work in supporting that vision.
Now, what about the board’s management of the executive director? There are some unique issues to factor in, the main one being that the executive director needs a good relationship with the board as a group as well as with individual board members. Navigating the group vs. individual dynamic requires the dedicated focus of a strong board president who can bring consensus among board members and foster a culture of healthy discourse. All of the things a good executive director does for their board – from showing respect to providing structures to cheerleading – are things the board should also do for the executive director.
In addition, by focusing on its three broad categories of work (fiduciary, strategic, and generative), a board can develop strong collaborative relationships with the executive director that are bolstered by solid processes. Each of these categories includes some aspects of managing the executive director and the partnership.
Fiduciary oversight ensures that processes are in place to foster the healthy functioning of the business, like financial matters, policy making, stewardship, and managing its own performance. In relation to the executive director a board’s fiduciary duties include a thorough annual review process.
Strategic duties include attending to vision and ongoing planning as well as maintaining good relationships with key stakeholders. The board’s strategic focus is exercised regularly through good succession planning – understanding the executive director’s connection to the many stakeholders they manage on behalf of the board as well as the organization’s capacity to maintain those relationships when the executive director departs. This understanding then helps the board to make its most strategically important choice when the time comes – the next leader of the organization.
Generative duties focus on understanding the key questions before the organization as well as developing its resources. This aspect of the work with the executive director focuses on providing ongoing counsel and support as well as access to professional development, like coaching or leadership development programs, to ensure they are fully set up to succeed in the role.
By bringing a collaborative mindset, supported by strong processes, board and executive director can build a trusting partnership with a good balance of mutual feedback and encouragement.
Here are a few final observations and pieces of advice for boards and executive directors:
The board president and executive director should regularly discuss the partnership, talking through gray areas before bringing the full board into the conversation. Together, they can ensure that board members are included in the most important issues and do not feel the need to be involved in the day-to-day operations.
To that end, identify meaningful metrics that help the board feel confident that the operations of the organization are under control. This can be a standard dashboard or report that is shared before a board meeting so that day-to-day management issues do not become a board meeting topic.
Remember that the board’s most important duty is the hiring and ongoing evaluation of the chief executive. If there is not one in place already, build a clearly articulated annual process that is managed by the executive committee or perhaps a human resources committee of the board.
So, who’s managing who? Ultimately, both board and executive director are at their best when they adopt an inclusive style – clearly managing interactions to include each other’s input in all important matters and respecting the boundaries between the roles.
To learn more about governance, succession planning, or managing the executive director role, visit website, follow me on LinkedIn or check out my upcoming course: Nonprofit Leadership - Being Prepared and Effective from Day One.