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

How Can the Chair’s Role Impact the Executive Director?

Many board leaders are comfortable taking a back seat to their executive directors a good deal of the time. While EDs’ perspectives are important—and are often more informed than those of their chairs—it is a chair’s duty to listen to the chief staffer’s opinions and use them to propel the board’s work.

Our goal here is not to diminish the executive director, who clearly plays a central role in every nonprofit, but to focus on how the chair can best leverage that leadership position. After all, as the leader of the board and the main board liaison to staff, the chair plays an influential role in the relationship between the organization’s two key leaders. By performing the following duties well, the chair stands to gain the ED’s trust and confidence, primarily through these tasks:

  • Facilitating well-run meetings
  • Setting organizational priorities in tandem with the executive
  • Recruiting competent, motivated board members
  • Holding individual board members accountable
  • Ensuring that committees are engaged and functioning
  • Mediating conflict among members, either alone or by involving other relevant parties
  • Serving as a spokesperson to the greater community
  • Guiding the board through crises
  • Leading the hiring, evaluation, and firing of the ED

Performing the above duties requires time, commitment, energy, and perseverance. If done well, the result is a strong partnership with the ED that benefits the entire organization.

But, we saved the most important—and one of the most overlooked—duties of the board chair for last: supporting the ED. This role will vary from one organization to the next, but it typically involves ensuring that the ED is being recognized and nurtured. Realizing that the ED job can seem like a nonstop treadmill at full speed, the chair can be the ED’s biggest fan and cheerleader! Chapter 20 includes more detailed suggestions and strategies on how the chair (and board) can support the ED. Often, the board follows the chair’s leadership on this front, so sometimes even a few laudatory words or a token gift given in public can reenergize an ED’s fatigued mindset.

Cover: Nonprofit Board Service for the GENIUS

This is Part 2 of a two-part blog. If you missed it, be sure to read Part 1. This blog posting 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.

How Can the ED Help Lead the Board?

In our experience, highly engaged boards have this ingredient in common: focused ED leadership. Executive directors as board leaders keep the board—and especially the chair—focused on attainment of the mission and vision. While the chair may well top the organizational chart, we have come to learn that the ED of a well-functioning nonprofit takes top billing in what we’ll call a “leadership chart.” There’s little denying that EDs must nudge, direct, and cajole the workings of the board in order for management and governance to work seamlessly together.

That doesn’t mean that the ED should be the most vocal person at board meetings or that this leader’s presence is necessary at every board-level conversation. It does mean that an ED must intentionally work to lead this high-level volunteer group. Otherwise, the board can become directionless, uninspired, and disengaged.

Board members can be quick to define their EDs as either overwhelming the board or being largely absent, providing no focused leadership or guidance. Clearly, neither is healthy for the organization. There is a sweet spot in between these extremes that most often enables a solid, respectful working relationship between staff and board. What are the appropriate tasks for an ED who is seeking to strengthen the board?

Illuminate the Mission and Vision

You already know that the ED conveys the vision. What you might not have thought about is just how much that role can influence a board. The ED’s passion for, and communication of, a clear vision reminds members why their focus should be strategic and long-term. And, when the ED regularly illuminates the mission, it often translates into greater board dedication.

Sometimes, these tasks can be accomplished in the boardroom, through mission moments and discussions about the external environment. Other times, they can go further: The ED of a watchdog group set up a pen pal program between board members and those who had been affected by the nonprofit’s work. That experience gave them a greater understanding of the impact of that group’s work. Another ED strategically schedules meetings with board members when program beneficiaries will be in the building, giving board members a chance to experience the energy of the organization’s programs. Other leaders create presentations, share articles, or tell stories that get the board out of the everyday and enable them to see the bigger picture.

Steer the Board’s Focus

Most EDs help prepare for board meetings. They compile board packets, help develop agendas, schedule committee meetings, and provide financial information. These tasks certainly keep a board moving in the right direction. They also create the foundation for an ED and chair’s work of setting goals and expectations. For instance, each board agenda illustrates the issues delegated to the board under its full authority, versus those that the ED and chair might handle independently or send to committees. If the two players are systematic about delegating work, the bleeding boundaries that plague many nonprofits can quickly diminish.

Help Direct the Leadership Pipeline

Because the relationship with the board chair is so vital to the executive director, the ED has every right to play a part in selecting the next board leader. This process often begins many steps earlier, when the ED plays a role in developing a leadership pipeline for the board. The executive might suggest preferences for board seats, committee and officer leadership, and the chair. Of course, it is the board that votes on the final candidates, but the nominating or governance committee can work closely with the ED to ensure that candidates are acceptable to the person who will work with them most.

Great EDs know when to actively lead their boards and when to let their boards lead. They recognize the skills board members bring and when to tap into those volunteers. How do they gain these insights? In part, they pursue relationships with individual board members. It may seem an impossible goal, but it’s worthwhile for EDs to attempt to meet with each board member annually.

A board can expect and even encourage the executive director to provide it with key leadership, motivation, and support. In fact, for many engaged boards, a visionary ED is an essential ingredient.

It is increasingly common for EDs to serve as nonvoting, ex officio members of boards. This structure can bridge the divide between board and ED by legitimately giving the staff leader a seat at the board table.

What If the Relationship Takes a Turn for the Worse?

The likelihood of the ED-chair relationship souring is real. One reason is that, in many organizations, the chair position changes every year or two. Each new one presents a host of adjustments for an already-busy ED. The chair must also adjust when the ED retires, resigns, or even gets fired. Sometimes, one leader or the other remains in the position too long, leading to a feeling of complacency or entitlement. Add to these scenarios any crises that stand to strain the relationship, and you’ve got a very fluid set of circumstances.

If the ED-chair relationship takes a turn for the worse, hopefully the two parties can have an honest conversation about what has gone amok and the steps that might get them back on track. If the two cannot broker those negotiations themselves, select board members might step in, since an unproductive leadership team directly impacts the board itself. If the situation cannot be resolved internally, it might be necessary to bring in an outside mediator or board consultant to get everyone back on track. Many leadership coaches specialize in getting organizational heads to think through new approaches to their work.

It’s typically worth the effort to strengthen even a tottering ED-chair relationship. While a board can plod along for months or even years with a disgruntled leadership duo, it often takes a simple intervention or some professional development to bring the two together and recognize their collective strengths. Those assets are multiplied many times over when they feed board and staff morale.

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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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