Board and CEO Relationship

Running a nonprofit is a group effort. There are differences in responsibilities, but how can they work together to find the greatest results? More specifically, how can the Board assist the CEO or Executive Director to their best ability?

Responsibility to the organization and the community includes more than just providing the service offered by the organization. It also includes good stewardship of all funds contributed to the organization by donors, foundations, and corporate sponsors. One thing many don’t consider is the way in which the board is also expected to support the organization’s CEO or Executive Director. Success of the organization’s leadership depends heavily upon sufficient support so that the goals can be met and progress made. This article will discuss the various ways in which individual board members can improve their own relationship with the nonprofit CEO or Executive Director.

Have You Asked Them How You Can Help?

Running a nonprofit organization can be a demanding job. CEOs and Executive Directors can be pulled into many directions throughout the day and they may not really consider the ways in which they can utilize their board beyond their traditional roles. The best way to find out what areas you can improve impact and decrease pressure on the organization’s leader is to ask them how you can help. Many of them will be grateful to you for even asking.

Most nonprofit leaders do not feel it is their right to ask more of their board members, so they will often take on far more than they should to accomplish what the board has decided is important to the organization’s current goals. Just like any leader of any organization – for profit or nonprofit – there is a lot of pressure on the “head” to accomplish everything and make it look effortless. They will frequently burn themselves out without asking for help as they fear looking inept or weak. No one should have that level of pressure put upon them. A nonprofit is not a solo venture and the leadership should not be put into a position to feel as if everything depends solely on them.

Every board member has different skill sets, time, and knowledge. Board members can assist by asking what the CEO/Executive Director needs. They will often know exactly how each board member could be helpful. This improves relations among staff and board members because everyone feels seen and valued for their contributions. If you happen to have a particular ability that they are unaware of, offer it if you see the potential to be helpful in a particular area.

Unfortunately, this particular situation doesn’t happen as often as it should. I work with many nonprofits where the CEO or Executive Director contacts me to dispel their distress, express the amount of personal sacrifice they are making, and that they are grateful to have a safe place to express these issues. It is also likely that some organizations have likely lost board members because they felt unseen or unimportant to the overall organization’s goals. This is a relationship that must be nurtured to help everyone involved and bring out the highest impact in the community.

Don’t Impose Yourself

There is a fine line between helping and undermining the functionality of the organization. This means that board members really need to stay out of the management of the organization itself. This is the role of the CEO or Executive Director. Governance is a different activity from management. Board members are governing agents. Board members who do not understand this often cost the organization a lot of lost hours to repair damages created. Know your place.

As a board member, you should absolutely feel pride in your organization and your contributions to its efforts. Your support does contribute to the overall success of the organization, but your contributions should be limited to fiduciary, strategic planning, and facilitating external support. These are things that are above and beyond daily operational functionality. The CEO or Executive Director is responsible for the daily operations, and frequently does not have time to expend on additional activities that the board offers. You can think of it in a simple way: The board plans, the CEO/Executive Director executes.

Planning includes facilitation of community partnerships, assisting with fundraising events, and providing insight on how to achieve organizational goals. Staff are the responsibility of the CEO/Executive Director. This means board members really do not and should not have a say over who to hire and fire or how staff are managed. The only exception to this is if there is an exceptionally egregious activity taking place. In this instance, the board must go to the CEO/Executive Director directly. The CEO/Executive Director will handle the staff or volunteer issue directly. The only time a board should intervene is if a change of CEO/Executive Director needs to occur.

Are You Available and Do You Follow Through?

Deciding to become a board member for a nonprofit is a commitment. This requires time, money, and dedication. It isn’t a social activity and it isn’t an optional attendance card. If you accepted your appointment, you are obligated to follow through. This means showing up to all board meetings, fundraisers, events, and more. Occasionally there are board members who feel this isn’t a requirement for them and they treat their role as an optional attendance suggestion. It’s not optional. Boards should ask any member who behaves in such a manner to leave. A dependable board is critical to nonprofit success.

Board members are governing leaders. This means the public expects to see you at all events. Board members depend upon you showing up so decisions can be made and projects can move forward. Entire budgets, projects, and organizational goals can be hindered or halted due to haphazard board meeting attendance. Foundations (grants) don’t care if you have lazy board members. They’ll just fund an organization that has stability instead. They aren’t interested in those who cannot stay on top of things and are not accountable. The community looks at your organization’s efforts as something not to support if the board members can’t be motivated to attend. Board behavior matters a lot.

What Do You Provide?

Board members are an invaluable resource when it comes to providing feedback on CEO/Executive Director performance and evaluation. This needs to be a formal and annual data-driven evaluation process. It also impacts compensation. This is not done as an individual board member interaction. This is a collaborative board effort in addition to any executive committee evaluation process. The feedback is helpful for the CEO/Executive Director to know what areas they are excelling in and where they could use some improvement. Feedback does not need to be exclusive to this process, however. Some issues can be addressed sooner than the annual evaluation and probably should. Waiting until the annual evaluation is unfair to the CEO/Executive Director and could cost the organization lost time in rectifying the issue by not addressing it sooner. Board members can be wonderful professional development resources and can facilitate CEO/Executive Director development.

Do You Deliver?

This goes along with the showing up and following through aspect. Showing up and following through are only part of the expectation. You need to deliver in order for the organization to truly benefit from your board membership. If you have offered to make a community connection and you fail to do so, this action impacts the organization’s plans and goals. Do what you say you will do and make sure it happens. That is delivery. This might mean that you have to put in more effort with a promise made and a community member not participating as you had hoped. You might need to invest more time and energy into nurturing that connection so that you can deliver on your promise. This also applies to donation promises. If you commit to financially contributing, you need to actually financially contribute.

It is not the CEO/Executive Director’s responsibility to make sure board members follow through and deliver on their own promises. They are managing staff and volunteers. They do not manage governing board members. Putting the CEO/Executive Director into a position of feeling they have to say something can create poor relations between leadership. This should always be avoided in order to have effective relationships and productive outcomes. If you cannot fulfill your promise, you are obligated to inform the CEO/Executive Director so that they know what to expect and may be able to take action on issues impacted by this outcome. An alternate course of action can be discussed at this juncture. Board member delivery is crucial.

Do You Listen?

CEO/Executive Directors and Board members both need to engage in active listening. This is crucial in preventing breakdown of communication and understanding. This may mean being patient while a challenge is being discussed. Do not offer a solution without hearing the full issue and all aspects impacted. Actively engage in leadership discussions to solve the problem, but make sure you listen as much or more than you speak. Group conversations often offer additional information that may not have been known previously. Listening and reflecting on the full scope of the issue ensures that everyone has thoroughly considered the situation and all aspects before offering solutions. Short-sighted solutions can often lead to bigger problems down the road. It is best to always look long-term and find solutions that can alleviate future issues related to the current challenge. The board’s active discussion can help the CEO determine the best course of action.

Personal accountability and responsibility are essential to good Board governance as well as board and CEO/Executive Director relationship. Together these two leadership components can make or break an organization, so it is essential that healthy relationship is continuously monitored and nurtured.