Effective co-leadership: Board and Executive Director relationships
Posted on: April 23, 2019 at 9:56 am

By Alexis De Sela

Much has been written and discussed about the critical roles of, and relationship between, the Board of Directors and Executive Director of a nonprofit, and I don’t want to fall into redundancy with this article. However, as we’ve worked closely with organizations in their capacity building efforts, we have seen examples of how this critical co-leadership relationship can strengthen or harm a nonprofit. In this article I would like to clarify Executive Director and Board roles and provide you with my observations of positive and harmful behaviors to help you reflect on and improve the health of your Board/ED relationship.

Understanding roles: It has been long established as best practice by Board relations experts that the main responsibilities of the Board are to:

  • Fulfill its legal and fiduciary duties to the organization: duty of care, duty of loyalty, and duty of obedience
  • Establish the long-term vision and strategy
  • Hire, establish goals, evaluate the performance of, and support the Executive Director
  • Provide expertise through active involvement in committees
  • Meaningfully contribute to and help raise funds
  • Establish and uphold a Conflict of Interest policy

The main responsibilities of the Executive Director are to:

  • Lead and manage the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit and ensure implementation of strategy and regulatory compliance
  • Ensure the organization’s staff is adequately led, evaluated, compensated, and that all productivity and performance standards are met
  • Support the board and provide regular and realistic updates on the state of the organization’s operational health
  • Be the face of the organization in the community and maintain positive and mutually beneficial relationships with stakeholders
  • Be the chief fundraiser and help develop the board to fulfill its fundraising responsibility

Having established the main responsibilities for each party, healthy Board/ED relationships are complimentary to each other, each fulfilling an important role to achieve optimum organizational health. The most successful nonprofits understand these roles well and maintain interconnectedness and counterbalance. That balance is achieved when the Executive Director is given clear performance goals and strategies and latitude to execute them, and when the Board fulfills its oversight and other duties and provides counsel as industry experts without delving into the day-to-day business of the organization. Co-leading effectively requires a healthy dose of communication, respect, and trust.

If the Board is receiving information, studying updates, and asking questions during Board or committee meetings there should be plenty of opportunity to address emerging issues with the Executive Director openly and professionally. If the Executive Director is performing well, the Board should reinforce the behaviors and continue to build the relationship. If performance is lacking, the Board must address it professionally, respectfully, and formally, if needed, but always allow the Executive to correct performance and fully execute his/her operational responsibilities, unless there has been a serious breach of ethics or compliance, which should be addressed differently.

When the Board Chair or individual Board members don’t understand their roles or choose to ignore them and begin to impose their view of what they believe is best for the organization, or to second guess every move the Executive Director makes, breakdown of trust occurs, and triangulation and unhealthy alliances begin to emerge. Everyone involved begins to calculate and measure their interaction with each other causing the Executive Director’s professional, and by extension, the organization’s operational effectiveness to suffer.

Other unhealthy behaviors include the existence of individual Board member conflicts of interest and refusal to recuse when necessary. Sitting on the Board to gain personal or professional advantage or merely to pad a résumé and holding a belief of personal omniscience is clearly a breach of responsibility.

Unhealthy behaviors on the Executive Director’s part include not sharing important or material information with the Board, not providing adequate support to the Board to help it fundraise and engage in productive committee work and becoming defensive when the Board has legitimate questions. Other non-productive behavior from an Executive Director is sharing too much of the day-to-day information and asking for input and decisions the Board shouldn’t make. Once that door is opened, it is difficult to close it.

Effective communication and trust are at the core of every successful ED and Board relationship. Trust is established when there is absolute clarity around roles and responsibilities and realistic mutual expectations for fulfilling them. Think about your organization and the current state of this critical relationship. What needs to be strengthened? What needs to change? What is your plan for addressing issues to ensure a successful and effective mission-centered relationship?

If you need guidance in having this conversation, we are here to help.