In my recent study on aspects of strategic leadership that are unique to nonprofit organizations, the majority of nonprofit leaders — from large organizations and small, rural and urban, with both new and seasoned execs. — highlighted the board/senior exec. relationship as one of five key areas unique in the Third Sector. Their insight and perspective may be helpful to private sector leaders who serve on nonprofit boards.
Every nonprofit has a board with missional and fiduciary responsibilities. That said, tensions can arise regarding who is “steering the ship” — the board or the exec. I have served on local, state and national nonprofit boards and I also report to a board, so I have experience on both sides of the table. I have incredible respect for those individuals who give of their time, talent and treasure to support and guide a charitable mission. I also recognize that nonprofit execs focus their full-time efforts on the nuances of the organization, giving them a depth of understanding regarding complex systems and processes that are simply not realistic for a board to fully comprehend.
One of the study participants captured the board/senior leader tension this way: “You and I both have seen lots and lots of incredible leaders have difficulty with their boards, and not because they weren’t incredible strategic leaders who were achieving amazing results . . . I think this is one of the most challenging parts of our roles. And there are days, I’ll admit it, when I wish I didn’t have a board and other days when I think, ‘Oh my gosh, the power of all these unique people with their experiences and their voices and they get they make us broader and more robust, and so good.’ . . .” While those words may ring true, there are things that both execs and board members can do to lessen this inherent tension baked into the nonprofit sector.
For nonprofit execs . . .
Transparency and communication are key. No surprises should be a foundational component of a strong board/exec. relationship. Yes, board members will (hopefully) ask questions and occasionally push back, and they won’t necessarily understand the complexities of the systems to which you are held accountable, but it is your job to get the board and staff on the same page. Board members’ questions help you get better. They help you avoid potholes, and challenge you to more succinctly articulate the intent and potential impact of a project. And that is a good thing.
For nonprofit board members . . .
Know your role. Are you on an operational board or a governance board? Are you expected to play a hand-on role in the day-to-day operations of the organization (more common for small orgs) or is your role focused on governance and fiduciary oversight? A governance board member trying to insert themselves in the day to day operations — even with the most positive intent — can undermine both the exec. and the efforts of the organization. Yes, ask questions, hold execs accountable, just don’t try to do their job. It really is harder than it looks.
It takes both engaged boards and skilled nonprofit executives to allow our organizations to maximize their missions. And less tension means more impact. It’s worth the effort.