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Executive Director–Chair Partnership: The Dynamic Duo (Part 1 of 2)

As two who served as leaders for the same organization (Bob as executive director, Susan as chair), we understand very well the delicate dance these choreographers must stage. And, we are convinced that the executive director-chair partnership is often the key ingredient that drives overall board engagement. It also sets the tone between staff and board. We are strong believers that a chair’s commitment increasingly drives a board’s work. At the same time, the ED’s engagement with that chair ensures that the board’s work is informed.

This is a partnership that requires high confidence, transparency, respect, and communication. Hopefully, the two leaders like one another! If not, a professional relationship must prevail. Anything less will affect the organization. After all, this pair is responsible for orchestrating a body of people devoid of many formal rules, required goals, or often, well-defined roles. That means it’s up to this duo to set the tone for nearly of all of the board’s achievements.

Why Is the Executive Director-Chair Relationship So Crucial?

A strong executive director-chair partnership bolsters board performance and long-term organizational stability. Why? Each leader relies on the other for support and ideas, and neither wastes time looking to evade the other when critical events arise. Instead, issues quickly get airtime, and the players find solutions. This reliance enables the organization to weather storms with greater speed and tact than tends to be the case when the board operates in a separate realm from the ED.

This pairing is doubly vital because the board chair serves as the de facto boss of the ED. While legally, the full board supervises the executive director, it is not realistic for the executive director to report to a dozen “bosses,” which leads to the chair’s practical role as primary liaison between the ED and board.

Cover: Nonprofit Board Service for the GENIUS

This article is excerpted from Chapter 19 of Nonprofit Board Service for the GENIUS, authored by veteran CharityChannel colleagues Susan Schaefer and Bob Wittig and published by For the GENIUS Press, a project of the CharityChannel professional community. The authors wrote this book for anyone thinking about serving on a nonprofit board, or who, already serving, wants to be more effective in the role. Forward-thinking executive directors and board chairs will put it into the hands of their board members, no matter what their experience level.

GENIUS books are written for beginners, and those who are rusty and want a refresher. Readers receive a solid foundation in the subject in a step-by-step progression from the fundamentals to more advanced aspects. They will enjoy the fun, upbeat, and first-person writing style. They will even find themselves entertained by the occasional sprinkled-in humor, and look forward to sidebars that enhance the discussion.

Though written in a conversational first-person style, GENIUS books are thorough and authoritative treatments of the subject. They are written by top experts in the subject who want to share with others what they’ve learned.

The ED-chair roles can appear well defined:

  • The chair leads the board and ensures that it is well managed and motivated.
  • The ED leads the staff and ensures that it is well managed and motivated.
  • The chair and ED work together to lead the nonprofit enterprise.

Human nature complicates these simple equations. Personalities can quickly deteriorate any one of the elements above, creating a ripple effect that can adversely impact the entire organization. The human factor can even disrupt events if the chair and ED are otherwise doing the right thing. It’s like baking a cake: You can have all the right ingredients, but if you bake the cake at the wrong temperature, your prized dessert is toast. The “wrong temperature” in this case might indeed have to do with overheated personalities. Or distrust. Or egos. Or lack of communication. Or divergent priorities.

What Makes for a Strong Executive Director-Chair Relationship?

In most nonprofits, there is a gap between what board members know and the realities of the day-to-day operations. Unless the board is running the organization without staff, it is virtually impossible for these part-time volunteers to know in detail what is happening day-to-day. Members rely on selected information provided by the executive director. While the board does not need to know every minute detail, it does require an intelligent staff “filter” that knows the information best suited for board meetings.

The ED-chair relationship is a bridge that helps close this information gap. The chair often serves as a testing ground for the ED. If the two believe that an issue requires a larger discussion, they will raise it with a committee or the full board. When the board learns what it needs to learn, when it needs to learn it, the resulting synergy transfers to the staff, other stakeholders, and even the mission.

The ED and chair must work together in many ways to provide a comprehensive yet manageable set of issues and data that inform the board’s work. They must also work to build goodwill between them. The organization relies on this dynamic duo to have their fingers on the pulse of the organization, allowing them to strategically bring new issues and challenges to the board for input and support. Their partnership has both practical and relational aspects to it. The practical parts include:

  • Information needed. The board defines a set of baseline data that it requires from the executive director on a regular basis, usually during the lead-up to its meetings. This data helps members fulfill their oversight roles. The board chair must believe that the ED is being fully transparent with the chair and, in turn, with the entire board.
  • Information shared. The ED provides that data and key strategic information, as well as questions that require board input and decisions. These will vary over time. The board chair helps prioritize which issues will come before the entire board.
  • Strategy. The chair and ED need to work together to frame the strategic issues and goals that will steer the board (and staff) in the same direction and provide measurable criteria to assess progress. These are ideally board-approved goals established during some kind of planning process; however, it is not uncommon for new issues to emerge. See Chapter 9 for guidance on strategic planning options.
  • Board operations. Ultimately, the chair is responsible for overseeing board operations. One major exception comes in creating the meeting agenda. That document represents the collective efforts of the ED as well. The two work together to create an interesting, thought-provoking, discussion-generating meeting. See Chapter 18 for more details.

The relational pieces are equally important, and if not present, can be the undoing of this key partnership:

  • Trust. The chair must trust that the ED is forthright and that there will be no surprises. Ethics and honesty is a two-way street: The ED must trust that the chair provides a safety net, so that if something goes
    wrong (unless it’s something unethical), the chair will rally the board to resolve the issue.
  • Accountability. The chair must not only strive to partner effectively with the ED but must also hold the executive accountable—and do so in a respectful, thoughtful manner. The ED, then, has a right to expect that the chair will hold the full board and its individual members accountable.
  • Mission. With mission at the core of this relationship, the parties gain valuable perspective when navigating issues together.

Communication is both practical and relational in nature. The practical piece includes the information supplied by the executive director, as required to the board. The relational piece will vary by style and personality. For example, one board chair might suggest weekly phone conversations with the ED. The next might prefer monthly or as-needed meetings. However the communication happens, it must meet the needs of both the ED and the chair.

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About the Authors

Bob Wittig

While pursuing his MBA, Bob took a course on nonprofit management and was hooked!

Since 2002, Bob has been executive director of the Jovid Foundation in Washington, DC. In addition to grantmaking, he has provided strategic planning, board development, and technical assistance to grantees. He has also hosted a monthly “Lunch Club” for grantee executive directors. In 2009, he founded a similar group for grantee board members.

Prior to Jovid, Bob served as the executive director at Academy of Hope, development director at Joseph’s House, and the direct marketing manager at Special Olympics International. In 1992, he was part of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers to serve in Ukraine.

Bob has been a contributing editor to CharityChannel and was a contributing author to YOU and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Practical Tips from the Field’s Top Practitioners, Researchers, and Provocateurs.

Bob’s board service includes: founding board member of Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School (treasurer); All Souls Church Unitarian (treasurer); Workforce Organizations for Regional Collaboration; and the Ross Elementary School PTA (treasurer).

Bob has a master’s degree in business administration and a bachelor’s degree in marketing and finance, both from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He lives in Washington, DC, with his daughter, Kayla, and their dog, Ellington.

Email: [email protected]

Susan Schaefer

About the Contributor: Susan Schaefer

Susan is a seasoned consultant, writer and speaker who is passionate about the nonprofit sector. Her practical approach to fundraising and board development has made her a frequent speaker at conferences and in classrooms. She founded Resource Partners LLC in 2001 with a mission to help nonprofits excel. Her work with executives, development staff and boards has empowered dozens of organizations to reach and exceed their financial goals. Susan brings integrity and proven results to all her work, resulting in clients who return to her again and again. She co-edited The Nonprofit Consulting Playbook: Winning Strategies from 25 Leaders in the Field, published by CharityChannel Press. Prior to founding Resource Partners, Susan helped lead the design and implementation of The Gates Millennium Scholars Program, funded by one of the largest private grants in history. Throughout her career, she has held seats on nonprofit boards, regularly holding leadership positions. Her next adventure includes serving as adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University. Susan holds a master’s degree in Not-for-Profit Management and a bachelor’s degree in English, both from the University of Maryland.

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