One thing very unique to the nonprofit sector is the makeup and function of the Board of Directors. As opposed to for-profit companies, by-in-large nonprofit Board members are volunteers. This can often result in a complex relationship between the Board and executive staff members of your nonprofit. Here are some tips on how to build healthy relationships at the executive level to help further your mission.
Why does a complex relationship form between the Board and the executive staff members of a nonprofit organization, you ask? Well, it’s because this small group of Directors are not only in-charge of the organization, but they can also be volunteers, donors, advocates, and friends. They are put in charge of the organization’s oversight which includes the paid staff.
As someone who has both served on a Board as well as been an Executive Director that reported directly to a Board on small to mid-sized 501(c)(3)s, I know how complex the relationship is between staff and the Board. These relationships can be fraught with conflict and damaging to the overall mission, but if treated with care and intentionality, can greatly benefit the mission.
Boards can be local or remote (as related to staff). They can gather annually, bi-annually, quarterly, monthly or even more often! But the one thing all Board of Directors have in common is that they are – or at least should be – considered your Most Valuable Constituents…(Bring out the MVC trophy!)
The Relationship Between Staff and Board
I know it may sound funny to label your Board members as “constituents,” but it is important to remember how valuable they are to your mission as volunteers, advocates, and donors. Besides serving in an executive leadership and oversight capacity, Board members can:
- Volunteer their time to help you in areas of need
- Bring valuable expertise to the organization that you would otherwise not have
- Introduce you to valuable prospective donors and or constituents
- Support the mission financially
- Hold positions in places of influence that can open doors otherwise not available
Even though the Board is your boss, as an executive staff member, it’s important to remember that while serving in such a capacity your Board members are volunteers. And just like any other volunteer within your organization, you need to provide feedback, updates and progress reports, and show the impact of your mission. Otherwise, you run the risk of “burning and churning” your Board members or potentially, even placing them on an information island. This can cause silos to form between your staff and the Board and even between Board members.
By building these healthy relationships, you can get the best out of your Board in order to further your mission.
The Relationship Between Board and Staff
As a Board member, working with your executive staff can be inherently challenging depending on the genesis of the relationship. For example, are you friends with your executive staff? Were you appointed by the executive staff? Did you hire your executive staff? Also, the Board is not necessarily involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization – while the executive staff is. All of these instances create potential opportunities for conflict, but, with proper relationship management, conflict can be avoided from the onset.
Know your role
First off, as a Board member, it’s important to know your role. Whether you were appointed by your staff, or whether you hired your staff, it’s important to know that you have legal, ethical, and managerial responsibilities to uphold. It is important to outline these responsibilities.
One beneficial exercise is making sure all Board positions come with job descriptions. If you do not already have a job description, I would suggest sitting down with the rest of the Board and your executive staff and coming up with one. These descriptions ensure all of the aforementioned legal, ethical, and managerial roles are accounted for and divvied up properly.
In addition to creating a proper job description, it’s also important to layout and set clear expectations. This includes what you expect from your staff, and also what your staff expects of you. This will help you avoid overstepping boundaries, missing opportunities, or letting a key activity fall to the wayside.
One way to set expectations is to state and assign roles as a part of your annual, quarterly, or monthly strategic planning (or strategic plan review) sessions. An effective strategic plan must include assignments so that all parties know who is expected to accomplish each goal.
You also need to regularly review goals and expectations in order to hold each other accountable for the mission. In my experience, most of us seek and appreciate feedback, but don’t always love to be held accountable. However, we would be doing ourselves and the mission a disservice by not holding both the Board and the staff accountable.
Hold regularly scheduled meetings to keep everyone accountable. These meetings can be used to:
- Review the performance of the Board itself. Use this time to be open and honest in this self evaluation. Ensure that no factions and/or silos are forming within the members of the Board. Do this without the presence of your executive staff.
- Invite your executive staff to review the Board. The staff can provide more insight into the day-to-day work of your nonprofit while giving honest feedback.
- Have the Board review the performance of the executive staff. This feedback ensures that the Board and staff are striving towards the same goals and targets.
Knowing roles, setting expectations, and regularly evaluating and reviewing may not sound like the reason you joined a nonprofit Board. However, these practices are vital to the health of your relationships and for your mission as a whole.
Hopefully, I provided you with a little insight into how you can build healthy relationships between your Board and executive staff.
For those looking for more information on this topic, I would highly recommend the work of our friends at BoardSource and their book The Nonprofit Board Answer Book. You can also check out Peter F. Drucker’s book Managing the Nonprofit Organization and Lee Boleman & Terrence Deal’s Reframing Organizations. There are a number of other publications and books on leadership, change, and strategic planning that also provide valuable insight into this topic.
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