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Building a Strong Not-for-profit Board-Executive Partnership

The dynamics of the board-executive partnership has a strong effect on the health and viability of your organisation. Board members and executives have distinct roles, and the balance of power helps them to get the work of the organisation done. The relationship between the board and the executives requires recognising and appreciating each other’s position within the organisation. Just like any other important relationship, both parties have to establish and build their relationship with each other.

Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Not-for-profits, aptly stated, “The unique and multifaceted relationship between the board and its executive is perhaps the most important relationship leading to organisational success or failure. Like the two partners in a skating competition, each side can either bring out the best in the other or prevent the other from skating well.”

A board-executive partnership that’s healthy and strong is essential to a well-functioning not-for-profit organisation that maintains its focus on the mission. The dynamics of the relationship sets the tone at the top and provides an example of healthy relationships throughout the entire organisation.

Related article: Best Practices for Not-for-profit Board Oversight

An Effective Board-Executive Partnership Supports Respective Roles

If you haven’t done so already, your board should set up a committee to develop job descriptions for board members, the executive director, and any other top-level executives. It’s essential for everyone to be clear on the roles and expectations of everyone’s position.

The executive director runs the everyday operations of your not-for-profit. In this role, he or she has full authority and accountability for the leadership of the organisation’s programs and activities. The individual fulfilling this role is accountable for the financial performance and decisions they make on behalf of the organisation.

By contrast, the board of directors’ responsibility is to govern the organisation and support the executive director and other leaders. Not-for-profit boards are accountable for fiduciary duties which include:

  1. Duty of care-Hiring and monitoring the chief executive, setting appropriate compensation for leader, and setting goals for the organisation. This duty also entails planning for executive succession.
  2. Duty of loyalty-Ensuring that they establish conflict-of-interest and whistleblower policies and that they accept responsibility to honor the lines of authority between the board, executive director, staff, and volunteers.
  3. Duty of obedience-Supports governance decisions inside and outside the board room, operating as a single unit in supporting the executive director, and caring out the board’s decisions.

The board and the executives are responsible to hold true to the organisation’s mission, vision, and values. As not-for-profit governance is continually evolving, it’s essential for the board and the executive director to stay current with trends in governance matters to protect the organisation.

Related article: Re-Evaluating Your Not-for-profit Budget for Board Technology

Laying the Foundation for a Strong Not-for-profit Board-Executive Partnership

Good communication, transparency, and accountability are the keys to a strong not-for-profit board-executive partnership.

It goes without saying that new relationships are always a bit tentative in the beginning. Relationships require trust and trust requires communication. To be successful and building a strong relationship, both parties need to focus on keeping the lines of communication open. In fact, it never hurts to over-communicate at the start of the relationship to help strengthen the dynamic.

While the board and the executive director will surely engage in formal communications as they plan the agenda for board meetings and in conversations during board meetings, it’s also important for them to communicate on an informal basis, at times. Many not-for-profit boards find that it’s a good practice to get together for enjoyable, informal gatherings to get to know each other better outside of regular board meetings. The board chair and executive director generally have more frequent one-on-one meetings to guide the direction of the board’s agenda.

From a leadership standpoint, it’s also important to schedule regular meetings to discuss major issues such as strategic planning, board development, committee work, and board meeting agendas. In addition to having meetings at various intervals, an annual board and staff retreat can be effective, not only for planning but also for getting better acquainted and strengthening relationships. The board chair, the executive director, the executive committee, or a third-party facilitator can arrange for the retreat and plan a schedule. An annual retreat presents new opportunities to increase engagement and brainstorming ideas. Generally, everyone comes away from an annual board retreat feeling refreshed and motivated to work toward the mission.

Not-for-profit organisations benefit from the work of many volunteers including the board members. It’s important to show honor and recognition for their dedication and commitment by celebrating contributions and accomplishments on a regular basis. By joining in celebration, it further enhances the dynamics between the board and the executives.

The focus of your conversations should always center around the organisation’s mission. Undoubtedly, both parties play a major role in forming the strategic plan which sets out the future course of the organisation. The process of strategic planning should create a sense of excitement and optimism about the work that the organisation does.

Another vital component of the board executive relationship is having a mutual sense of accountability. Both parties need to see this as a healthy and responsible thing to do. Their views on accountability will be evident in their speech and in their actions, and that sets the standard for accountability across the entire organisation as a solid model for everyone else to follow.

Digital tools, such as a board portal system, also play an important role in the board-executive relationship. A board portal gives both parties easier access to data and other essential information. Your portal offers unlimited cloud-based storage for your founding documents, compliance documents, board handbooks, financial reports, and all the other important information that boards and executive directors need to collaborate on.

In the spirit of transparency, a board management system as offered by BoardEffect offers a secure place where they can collaborate and share files whether they’re working in person or remotely. BoardEffect was designed to help not-for-profits improve governance and support a culture of shared leadership and accountability.

Related article: Setting Not-for-profit Board Expectations & Increasing Effectiveness

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