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.
Let’s talk more about how to create the kind of relationship that fuels organizational success for nonprofits:
Establishing a Framework for Success
One of the most effective ways to improve the ED-Board relationship is to establish a framework for success from the beginning. Improving onboarding and training for both new Executive Directors and board members is a crucial component of defining roles, establishing early expectations, and providing the resources that both EDs and board members need to succeed in the future. But your efforts shouldn’t stop after their orientation is done!
Organizations should make an ongoing commitment to developing board members in their roles, especially as the organization grows and those roles evolve. Ed Rogan provides a list of ongoing educational and training opportunities that organizations should provide for their board members, which includes:
He summarizes how these types of initiatives can be successful in saying, “Nonprofits can empower their board members to enhance their knowledge, skills, and effectiveness. This investment in board member growth ultimately strengthens the board's collective capabilities and positively impacts the organization's governance and overall success.”
With that framework of success in place, EDs and their Boards must collaborate to properly align their efforts. They should have a shared vision for the organization and agree on how to achieve their mission. When the ED and Board are effectively aligned, they can avoid the most common sources of nonprofit frustration, including:
When creating strategic plans, the ED and the Board must work together to set goals, establish priorities, and take accountability. This means that they will take shared credit for the organization’s successes as well as failures and always strive to understand how they can do better in the future. Each should strive to lift each other up to recognize the other’s contributions. And, when conflict arises, it should be resolved productively in a way that makes everyone feel like their voice is being heard. Working together in this way fosters trust and respect.
Through collaboration there should be honest communication around finances, initiatives, and strategic plans. Regular updates must be provided to keep everyone informed, but they should not be a one-way form of communication. Questions and concerns should be able to be voiced honestly instead of leaving them unaddressed. As Ed Rogan explains, when talking about how to support board members,
[They] should feel comfortable voicing their concerns and seeking advice within the board environment. Nonprofits can create a safe and confidential space for board members to express their thoughts, raise questions, or discuss challenges they may be facing. This can be achieved through regular board meetings where open dialogue is encouraged, establishing a culture of trust and respect, and ensuring confidentiality when discussing sensitive matters. By fostering an environment that welcomes open communication, nonprofits empower board members to actively contribute and seek guidance when needed.
Both the ED and Board should always strive to be open with one another, valuing transparency even if what needs to be said is not something that the other wants to hear, especially when it comes to performance.
The Board should routinely evaluate the ED’s performance relative to goals and give constructive feedback, but again, this should not be a one-way dialogue. The ED should feel comfortable being candid with the Board when it comes to the organization’s direction and efficacy. Use regular one-on-one meetings to have a dedicated time and space to provide honest feedback and guidance and strive to listen, not just talk.
The most successful EDs and Boards will be willing to undergo regular assessments to look for ways that they can improve in their leadership, communication, and strategic execution to not only maximize their potential but also create a stronger organization.
If there are red flags to indicate that the Board is operating in a way that is ineffective, such as pushing their own agenda, second-guessing leadership decisions, or politicking, assessments will be even more critical to perform regularly. Remember, the characteristics of great nonprofit leaders are the same characteristics of great board members:
These kinds of characteristics should be readily identifiable across all leadership throughout the organization from the Ed to the Board.
When you need board advisory services, please reach out to us! Our team brings a deep set of strategic and operational experiences to our work. We offer a variety of consulting services to provide strategic support for nonprofit Executive Directors, Boards, and leadership teams around business planning, board meetings, leadership retreats, board assessments, executive coaching, and organizational development. Contact us today to find out more!
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