How To Bring Out the Best Among Board Members and With the Executive Director
Fiduciary duties: compliance, risk management and strategy are the day-to-day focus of nonprofit board members. In my 40-plus years as a governance consultant, I have observed that the board’s success in fulfilling these duties is to varying degrees affected by, if not dependent upon, the type of relationships experienced by and with each member, and equally, if not more importantly, between each member and the executive director.
You have likely heard some version of the phrase: happy spouse, happy house. Spouses and otherwise partners work daily with each other to bring out their respective and collective best. The nature of their relationship is the driving force that moves each to ensure that their daily living transactions accommodate their mutual and individual goals. For nonprofit boards, dedicating energy to strengthening relationships among members as well as the executive director can result in a board that is more engaged and fully committed and willing to do what is needed to be done, be it policy, planning, evaluation and/or even advocacy/fundraising.
Here is an overview of the relationship spectrum and the framework for how to bring out the best among board members and with the executive director.
Types of Relationships
According to research, there are three types of relationship on the spectrum: healthy, unhealthy and abusive. The healthy relationship is based on equality and respect, and is demonstrated by good communication, trust and honesty. Toward the middle is the unhealthy relationship where one or all parties attempt to control each other, which is demonstrated by breaks in communication, pressure, dishonesty, struggles for control and inconsiderate behavior. Finally, the abusive relationship has an imbalance of power and control, and is demonstrated by accusations, blame shifting, isolation, pressure and manipulation.
I have seen all of these types of relationships play out between executive directors and the board members. Each has consequences for the current and future health of the organization. Clearly, board members and executives who form and maintain a healthy relationship based on equality and respect are in a better position for effective decision-making.
Actions to Strengthen Relationships
The oxygen mask analogy is a good place to begin when considering how to develop a healthy board/executive relationships. In this analogy, airline passengers are instructed to put on their mask before aiding others, recognizing that if they are not well or safe, they won’t be available to assist others. For nonprofit boards, the relationship with executives begins with establishing a healthy relationship among members.
Included as part of board-relationship strengthening is an annual board orientation that includes getting to know everyone, and ongoing relationship-building activities in board meetings. A buddy system is another critical element. The goal is to leave no member behind and, instead, build a working trust to ensure all are on a level playing field relationally so that when it comes time for decision-making, no one is unequal in their ability to contribute.
Based on research and experience, board chairs are recognized as playing a critical role in strengthening the board’s relationships and transactions in addition to serving as a link to the executive. As the link, the chair’s focus should be communication to ensure the board and the executive understand each other’s needs and plans. Clear, accurate (fact-based) and timely communication is essential for the chair to implement in this role.
The exec does not, however, need to depend solely on the chair to have a link to the board. I recommend execs schedule, at minimum, a quarterly check-in with every board member, be it by phone or at a meal to increase mutual understanding and tune in to expectations. The goal is trust and respect. Direct and individual communication goes a long way toward achieving this goal.
A fourth action that can result in a strong and clear board-exec relationship is annual goals and performance reviews. Extensive research has indicated that both of these practices are rare among nonprofit boards. Additional research has shown that when discord strikes, it is often because the exec and/or board are unclear on expectations. And expectations may be organizational, financial, programmatic and yes, behavioral/cultural. The board that spends time and energy in conversation collectively and with the executive coming to agreement about all these matters (think minimally, annual budget, program plan, policies) is in a better position to make decisions that further the mission, as one team.
And much of this begins with stating what results are expected and taking additional time to learn the status of these results. Simple, no. Changing outcomes, absolutely. Bottom line, establishing a healthy relationship takes work by all involved but with positive outcomes for the organization as the result.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 print edition of NonProfit PRO as "Happy Spouse, Happy House: Relationship Matters." Click here to subscribe.