A guide to understanding the different roles of the board and staff


A new executive director contacted recently to ask, “Do you have any advice that will help me guide the board in the delineation between their role in governance and my role as CEO / staff?” The question of board and staff responsibilities is a frequently asked topic.

Here are some suggestions to support and strengthen this important relationship.

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Start orientation

Helping board members understand their role begins with orientation of new board members. This is an opportunity to share and discuss the budget, strategic plan, board committee roles, succession plan and other essential documents that reflect the direction and priorities of the board.

Use meeting agendas

Board meeting agendas should reflect board priorities and focus discussions on strategic goals, governance issues, financial health, and committee recommendations (not reports). The board chair plays an important role in keeping meetings at a strategic level and redirecting programmatic or operational ideas to the appropriate committee or executive director.

Unlearn bad habits

When people join a board after serving on several others, they can bring bad habits with them. If so, it may take a while for them to adjust to serving a high performing advisory. It is a good idea for the president and CEO to speak and / or meet regularly with new board members, especially in their first year, to help them level up and contribute to the work of the board. .

Studying good governance

To be an effective director, it takes time and a willingness to educate yourself on what it means to serve on a high performing board. Carter McNamara, curator of managementhelp.org, offers a free quiz designed to help the board and staff understand their roles.

BoardSource, CompassPoint, Bridgespan and Independent Sector offer many resources, articles, templates and tools to foster a healthy relationship between Chair and ED. Leadership Tallahassee’s annual Building Better Boards program is also a great opportunity to learn more about board service and to network with other board members.

Become an expert

Nonprofit EDs must be experts in nonprofit governance. This is one of the most effective ways to share best practices with board members and to prevent “hijacking” by either party. Consider providing an article or white paper on a topic related to governance and discuss it at a board meeting. I have heard many heartwarming stories about this column being used in this way and always enjoy hearing it.

Meet regularly

Set a time for the president and CEO to meet regularly, or even weekly, if possible, to discuss the dynamics of the board and the organization. A weekly call and a monthly visit for lunch or coffee can go a long way in keeping the lines of communication open and building a relationship of trust.

Recruit seasoned board members

When recruiting new board members, look for people who understand their role and who will speak up when board discussions turn into operational issues. Bob Harris, CAE, a frequent guest editor of this column, suggests bringing a “We’re in the weeds” sign that board members can lift up during the meeting or putting a toy helicopter on the table to remind members of the board. directors to keep meetings at the 10.00 foot level.

Seek outside help

It can be useful to bring in an external person to inform and educate the members of the board of directors on their role. This could be a former board member, a former board chair, or a governance consultant.

When recruiting for the Chair

Serving as Chairman of the Board of Directors is an important commitment and requires careful thought on the part of the governance committee and the potential leader. Joan Garry comes up with a series of questions she calls the “great board chair” checklist. Here are a few that I recommend asking before electing someone to chair. Do you want the job? Do you have time Do you have schedule autonomy? Can you meet the DE at least once a month? Can you enthusiastically model good fundraising behavior? Can you guide and supervise committees?

If the chairman of the board is the problem

Sometimes people agree to chair the board without understanding the commitment and are unable to devote the necessary time. A chair can also stay in the role for too long and can become an obstacle to progress. Whatever the issue, investing time in helping the president succeed is essential as they set the tone for the rest of the board and will influence future presidents.

Consider asking a past president to meet with a new president to share their experience in leading meetings and to guide the board in strategic discussions. If nothing works and a new chair is needed, work with the governance committee to identify and recruit the next chair who understands or is ready to embrace a healthy board-ED relationship.

The best chair-ED relationships are built on trust that recalls this quote from Warren Buffet: “Trust is like the air we breathe. When he is present no one really notices him, but when he is absent everyone notices him.

Notes on Nonprofits is produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting, and features new ideas and resources, answers to reader questions, and timeless topics from our Vault. Send your questions and comments to [email protected]

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