In a worst-case scenario, this dissonance results in the Board marginalizing the ED as just a passionate campaigner for the cause and writing off their opinion altogether, and the ED developing resentment and distrust towards their Board Members. The power struggle that ensues becomes a battle over dominance and recognition for the ways in which each can contribute to the success of the organization. Obviously, a situation like this never ends well! The toxic culture that develops as a result typically leads to turnover on the Board or the ED role (or both!). So, who’s right?
Whose opinion counts the most – the Board or the Executive Director?
One of the hardest decisions that a board can make is deciding what the future of the organization will look like if there’s a problem that’s big enough to consider sunsetting the organization instead. If one of the questions on the table is whether you can continue to deliver on your mission, it’s important to evaluate whether investing more is actually going to fix the underlying problem.
The ultimate question is really, “Is the organization worth saving?”
These are all statements I have made throughout my career, and that I have heard echoed from my peers in nonprofit leadership. And that’s a problem! Each of these statements point to an unspoken issue that should concern a board of directors. Ignoring those unspoken issues now might be setting you up for problems down the road.
Unfortunately, too often these kinds of statements are welcomed and even encouraged by board members. Boards often find reassurance in knowing that they have someone at the helm that’s dedicated to their mission. Additionally, they like the idea of saving money while doing great work. But they are, in fact, red flags that board members should be concerned about.
So, how do you identify the optimal leadership model for your nonprofit?
Trying to determine where the board ends and the ED begins is one of the most common issues that organizations struggle with (and a main reason why they bring us in to help!) because every organization handles executive responsibilities differently, and some nonprofits have historically had an unhealthy division of duties that influences their perspective on this issue.
Broadly speaking, the Board is responsible for strategy and governance while the Executive Director is responsible for implementation and management. However, both should work in partnership to support each other’s roles, building respect and trust to leverage each other’s strengths effectively. There is no hard line where one ends and the other begins, but there are spheres where each tends to operate.
Of course, as a child, every want to me felt like a need …until I moved out on my own. Becoming an adult required me to manage my own budget. Over time, I’ve learned to live out this depression-era lesson.
So, what does this have to do with executive recruiting? Everything! What you want in your new leader and what you need may be two different things.
Most organizations can easily figure out if their board is getting a passing or a failing grade, but anyone who has experience in nonprofit leadership can tell you that there’s a big difference between a board getting a D and a board getting an A or B.
We have seen it time and again – high turnover in one role because the other doesn’t want to share power and work together as equals. At one end of the spectrum, you have nonprofits that rely solely on their superstar ED to drive the organization, while at the other end you have nonprofits that give their long-time Board the keys and tell the ED to take a back seat. However, true success can only come when a nonprofit has both a strong ED and Board and the two are working together effectively to get the organization down the road.
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