Strategies for an Impactful Board Chair/Executive Director Relationship

Over the past few years, we have seen significant shifts in leadership within the nonprofit sector. As strategic services consultants at Propel, we have worked with:  

  • founders and longtime executive directors who are relinquishing their roles 
  • emerging organizations hiring their first executive director 
  • existing leaders with great ideas who may want to start a new initiative 

Throughout these experiences, we’ve reaffirmed our belief that the relationship between a board chair (the chair) and an executive director (ED) is an essential part an organization’s success. 

For some background to this conversation, we think it is important to offer some framing about how a “traditional” nonprofit board governs. Traditional nonprofit boards focus on setting the strategy for an organization and ensuring the best results from available resources. In this structure, the executive director participates in board meetings as a non-voting member who carries out the organization’s operational direction. Because the executive director holds such an influence on how activities are implemented, their partnership with the board becomes one of the most critical components of their role. In practice, the board chair is the direct liaison on behalf of the board of directors to the ED, making their relationship key to mission outcomes. 

Trust is Key to this Partnership 

In our work, we have seen that if the board chair and the executive director of a nonprofit do not have a good relationship, the organization can experience mission creep (the gradual expansion of mission beyond its scope) micro-managing of organizational staff, and more. A bad relationship makes it so almost nothing else works. Does having an effective relationship take work? You bet it does, but the effort is well worth it for the health of the organization. 

Building Trust 

Trust is the cornerstone in any board chair/executive director relationship; trust brings limitless possibilities in aligning the strategic and tactical efforts of an organization. When a lack of trust exists, it becomes more difficult to respond to the needs of the organization and increases the likelihood of future disagreement. As in all relationships, trust takes time; when entering this type of partnership make sure you give yourself time to: 

  • Learn more about each other and their roles; 
  • Establish expectations for working together including communications, managing conflict, and decision-making; 
  • Set and understand internal and external goals for each role; and  
  • Discuss strategies to support the organization through those roles on an ongoing basis. 

Establishing Roles 

How do you trust someone you have never worked with? When hiring a new executive director or selecting a board chair, it comes with a level of intentional planning and establishing expectations on the experience, expertise and/or passion of the prospective individual. That quantitative process can inform the initial level of trust building and determine ongoing practices needed to understand the responsibilities within each role and what each person brings to their role.  

The role of the board chair is to be the leader of the board, and some of those tasks are to:  

  • Facilitate effective decision-making processes 
  • Seek consensus, not majority rule 
  • Be actively involved in each member’s development (committees included) 
  • Work collaboratively with executive leadership to secure adequate organizational resources 
  • Liaison between the board at-large and executive director 

Role of the executive director 

  • Leader of the organization 
  • Overseer of organizational operations 
  • Visionary who promotes community change related to the agency mission 
  • Board developer, assisting in the selection and development of board members 
  • Recommender of policies and plans to the board and staff 

Strategies for a Strong Partnership 

The board chair and executive director partnership leverages these distinctive roles to both lead the organization to advance the mission and achieve organizational goals. The chair leads the board of directors; the executive director leads the staff. Here are some strategies for leading together: 

  • Develop goals and expectations together: With input from staff and board, the chair and executive director can discuss annual goals and performance expectations together and decide how often to check in on progress and what resources are necessary for the executive director to be successful.  
  • Understand individual roles and shared roles: While there are distinct roles, the specific actions will look different from one organization to another.  Clarify roles early and regularly and communicate with board and staff.  
  • Get to know each other: As trusted partners, make the time to understand, appreciate and adapt to one another.  Showing a united front as organizational leaders fosters trust throughout the whole organization.  
  • Plan for regular communications and discussion: Having a regular set of communication practices develops a cadence for working together and be open to additional communication practices based on circumstances, both expected and unexpected. 
  • Frequency of meetings: How often the chair and executive director meets will vary but at a minimum, they should meet before board meetings and possibly, before Executive Committee meetings.   
  • Shared commitment to the time required: Leading an organization is no easy task but by sharing the responsibility, it can certainly allow for more creativity and intentionality.  

Putting it all Together, Aligning and Adapting 

We recommend tossing perfection out the proverbial window when trying to build your relationship and work together. Instead, focus on understanding the technical aspects of each other’s roles, you can begin to dive into the adaptive needs of the organization and decide where your ideas align. Many times, we present our best selves leaving little room for mistakes or growth. Mutual honesty in sharing aspects of these roles will help in building trust and in meeting strategic goals. Strategic planning is an effective way to outline common goals to build that effective relationship. It is a process that creates commonality among board and staff, but most importantly gives you a north star to measure the impacts of the organization, the board, and staff.  

What’s Next 

Future leadership structures and the corresponding relationships are an important aspect of any organization’s success. As we explore the emergence of new leadership, it is important to examine how the relationships among key leaders impact the mission driven work.  

We look forward to working with nonprofits who are exploring new and traditional structures and can’t wait to share more about what we’re learning.  

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