The Secret Sauce: 3 Ingredients of a strong Board/ED partnership

Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Sadly, this statistic might even be higher in the nonprofit sector if you consider the relationship between a board and the executive director (ED) to be a partnership akin to marriage.

“It’s not you, it’s me” has been said in different ways among countless nonprofit boards and their staff leaders for years.

Board members come and go. Life takes them in new directions. Their level of commitment wanes. The nonprofit board experience isn’t as they imagined it. The ED runs the show and doesn’t need the board members, or the ED leans too heavily on the board members, and what started as a volunteer job quickly morphs into a full-time gig on top of the real job.

For the ED, walking the tightrope gets tiring — balancing some board members who are asleep at the wheel and others who might as well be connected at the hip, wanting to know every move made and why it was made. EDs wonder why smart professionals leave their business acumen outside of the boardroom and yearn for someone who is a true partner in the work. The ED’s greatest fantasy includes board members who understand the difference between governance and management and follow through with what they say.

While the idea of a strong board/ED partnership might seem like a fairytale, the reality is that it doesn’t need to be this way. A fulfilling relationship of any kind is comprised of several key ingredients that make up its secret sauce. Three of these are detailed below.

Ingredient #1: Quality Time – In our time-starved society, it’s tough to find extra minutes let alone hours. The good news is that the board/ED relationship is less about the quantity of time and more about the quality.

Quality Time from Three Perspectives:

* The Board Chair and ED Team – This relationship is as important to the success of an organization as is the foundation to a house. Without it, board members and staff lack direction, culture becomes difficult to build, and leadership is one dimensional. When the board chair/ED team prioritizes the time to meet consistently about organizational issues, the nonprofit reaps long-term benefits.

It’s even better if they find occasional opportunities to “break bread” together informally, so they get to know each other’s interests, likes, and dislikes outside of the nonprofit sphere. Beyond these more routine items, one of the most effective uses of time is reflection and planning at the end of a fiscal year. It’s an opportunity to discuss what went well and what to change, and it opens the door to establishing shared goals for the board in the year to come.

* Board Members — The amount of time required for board service depends on the life cycle of the organization. Working boards of younger, more grassroots nonprofits often necessitate several hours of service a week whereas boards of more mature nonprofits with numerous staff usually have less of a time commitment. Regardless, board service takes time, and good board members recognize this and plan for it. Here are four actions to get started:

  1. Make room for the nonprofit on your weekly “to do” list. That which doesn’t get calendared doesn’t get done, which is why radio silence between board meetings becomes commonplace, leading to the downward spiral of less and less engagement.
  2. During the calendared time, review meeting materials or written updates that the ED and staff team prepare.
  3. Be an ambassador. This could be as simple as sharing some of the organization’s social media posts or adding the nonprofit affiliation to a LinkedIn page and bio.
  4. Send a quick note of thanks to the executive director. Just as you like to be thanked for your board service, executive directors also like to be recognized for their hard work.

* Executive Directors — Quality time starts with dedicating time to support the board. Envisioning a pie chart, the ED’s time supporting the board should be more than a sliver. That which is nurtured will flourish, and relationships with board members are no different. Here are three ideas to get you started:

  1. Invest time to educate board members during board meetings and at your annual retreat. Board members who understand their role and the mission will help elevate the discussion and serve as thought partners. An investment in board members is an investment in your organization.
  2. Get to know your board members better. Set up a time to connect over coffee and learn about their interests outside of the boardroom. This can pay dividends in building trust not to mention learning ways you might enlist their support in the future.
  3. Just like it is a pleasant surprise to get a heartfelt “thank you” from your board members, it’s also important to share your gratitude with them. Are there a couple of board members who have gone above and beyond? Reach out to them with a quick handwritten note or personalized video message to share your appreciation.

Ingredient #2: Communication about Things That Matter – That’s a no brainer, right? And yet, consider how many times relationships crumble because there isn’t enough communication about the things that matter. Communication, like quality time, permeates all that you do.

Communication from Three Perspectives

The Board Chair and ED Team

Regular communication between the board chair and ED sets the tone for everything else. Sharing what’s on both of your minds about the organization will position you to be more proactive with opportunities while also dealing with minor challenges before they become major headaches.

A bonus is that your partnership will become stronger and the rest of the organization will benefit. Talk through your communication preferences — everything from mode of communication to frequency to standing agenda topics. Work through how you will handle sensitive topics when they arise, how you will handle conflict or disagreement, and what agreements you will make with each other to keep your communication honest, consistent, and transparent.

Board Members

Board members have a responsibility to communicate anything that will impact their service — something as simple as whether they will attend a board meeting to something more significant like a life event that will hinder their ability to be engaged in the months ahead. Similarly, if you’re feeling restless with your board service and it’s something you are committed to working with the organization to change, say something.

Too many board members often never speak up yet complain behind the scenes. Instead, be willing to work with board leadership to talk through solutions. Your experience might be like that of others and can ultimately help the organization see its blind spots and become stronger. And last but certainly not least, be an active participant in board meeting discussions. You were recruited to share your knowledge and perspective. Whether you agree or disagree with the topic at hand, your feedback is meaningful and inherent to your fiduciary responsibility.

Executive Directors

“No surprises” communication is the gold standard for all parties of a nonprofit and holds particular weight as it relates to an executive director’s communication with the board. When board members learn about the departure of a senior staffer from someone outside of the organization or read a news article about a new partnership the organization is embarking on, it can make them feel out of touch. As your ambassadors in the community, board members are a vital channel to spreading the word and managing the message. Wise executive directors keep board members abreast of positive and negative news, steps the organization is taking in relation to that news, and key messages the board needs to share if asked.

In addition to a “no surprises” approach, consider streamlining your written communications to the board. Write an executive summary, not a novel. Keeping your communications at the right altitude helps board members stay informed about the things you need them to focus on rather than encouraging them to get in the weeds.

As part of your regular communication with the board, find ways to connect them to the mission through regular mission moments between board meetings. This might include a testimony from someone you serve, a story from one of your field staff, or a photo of your work in action. Good board members are a gift, and it is helpful to remind them why they are giving of their time to your organization. Mission moments help with this and provide the added benefit of giving them examples they can use in their fundraising and ambassador efforts on your behalf.

Ingredient #3: Managing Expectations – We started this article with an alarming statistic about divorce, but do you know what the number one killer of most marriages is? Unmet expectations. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a marriage problem. Unmet expectations are also a life problem that plays heavily in board/staff relations.

Managing Expectations from Three Perspectives

Board Chairs and Executive Directors

The board chair and ED play an important role in defining and communicating expectations among the board and staff so there is no confusion. Often when trying to recruit new board members, the nominations committee will undersell the responsibilities and duties of being a board member. They are eager for new energy and believe that minimizing the expectations of the role will help attract more people. There is nothing further from the truth. Most people who give of their time want to make a difference; don’t take that away from them. By communicating proudly and fearlessly the expectations your organization has set for board members, you remove any ambiguity and avoid longer term confusion or resentment that arises when expectations aren’t laid out transparently from the beginning.

Board Members

Annual retreats are an opportunity to discuss the board’s expectations of each other as well as its ED. A skilled facilitator will help ensure the conversation doesn’t result in a never-ending laundry list of expectations or a list of unrealistic pipe dreams. At a minimum, it is fair for boards to expect an ED who:

  • Oversees and manages daily operations
  • Serves as the liaison between board and staff
  • Respects the board’s role and each board member’s unique gifts
  • Identifies issues that require board attention and makes recommendations for action
  • Communicates important news quickly

Executive Directors

Since the board handles all hiring and evaluation decisions regarding the ED, many EDs find this inherent power dynamic challenging when setting expectations of their boss. A strong relationship with your board chair or a safe space at a board retreat provides opportunities to have this open dialog. To make it easier, some executive directors frame it in the context of, “Here’s where I could use your support…” instead of, “This is what I expect of you…”

At a minimum, it is fair for an ED to expect a board who:

  • Makes timely and clear decisions
  • Respects their role and provides guidance when asked (versus unsolicited advice)
  • Comes to board meetings informed, prepared, and engaged
  • Plays some role in the fundraising process
  • Conducts an annual ED performance review
  • Conducts their own self-assessment

In Closing

You might be wondering why none of these ingredients included adherence to roles. While it is important to have a general understanding of each other’s respective lane, there are countless boards and EDs who are well aware of them and still suffer from low performance. Sharing ideas, knowledge, and feelings often gets lost with an overly rigid, structured approach to roles.

So, the next time you are looking to ramp up your board/ED relationship, put roles momentarily aside and instead, consider the power of combining these key ingredients — quality time, communication about things that matter, and managing expectations. Together, they build trust — the most important ingredient of all.

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