Nonprofit Board and Executive Partnership: Purely An Aspiration
Q: What’s this “partnership” thing I keep hearing about when describing the nature of the relationship between the board and executive? I understand that a true partnership between the board and executive can increase the board’s engagement and lead to better nonprofit results, but does this really occur?
A. Earlier this year, I discussed four indicators for assessing executive performance. One item not on the list: relationship. This was intentional on my part because I do believe that performance should be measured objectively against results-specific goals.
But relationships do matter practically. As discussed in the previous column in the NonProfit PRO September/October issue, relationships between board members set the tone as to what will be their engagement and, similarly, relationships affect how an executive and board work together (effectiveness and efficiency).
So, the nature of the relationship is a type-of benchmark, albeit one that can change with different people at the board table and differences in the internal and external environment. At any point in time though, the board and the executive can use their understanding of the nature of the relationship to understand what is working and/or could be improved between the two toward supporting the performance goals of the executive.
Identifying the Nature of the Relationship: A Tool
I pose that a matrix can graphically consider the nature of the board/executive relationship with four “extreme” scenarios.
Scenario one, at one end of the matrix, describes a board that is a micro-manager, where there is little or no thought permitted of the executive to do their job—the executive subsequently being a figurehead. This scenario is most common for infancy-stage executives who come onto the job following a short or long period with board members fulfilled all the organization’s functions. But this scenario can also take place when, for any number of reasons, the board loses confidence and/or trust that the executive should be doing the job for which they were hired.
The consequence of this relationship: the executive is a figurehead doing the heavy lifting with no voice or input and will likely not stay long in their job. The board can get burned out.
In scenario two, on the polar opposite end of the matrix, the executive is fully-in charge permitting some or no “room” for engagement and responsibility by the board—the board subsequently being a figurehead. The executive believes the board isn’t capable, ready or willing, but often expresses frustration for the lack of engagement, particularly about fundraising or using their network for the good of the organization, managing their own meetings or taking their own meeting minutes.
The third scenario has the board and executive crisscrossing roles and responsibilities with neither fully in-charge, cooperating or necessarily even knowing what the other knows, or knowing too much of what each are doing. There are generally no good consequences externally and internally for this type of relationship.
When one considers that few nonprofit board members have experience in partnership or even as supervisors of an executive, and executives in-turn have limited experience with boards, this scenario should not come as a surprise.
And finally, a fourth scenario has the board and executive clear and fully agreed about their respective roles and responsibilities, communicating as agreed and in effect, running like a well-oiled machine. In theory, this is the nature of a strong and equal partnership—perhaps ideal, but also not a scenario that is achieved overnight. Aspirational perhaps and, as such, definitely goal-worthy.
I began this article with the premise that the nature of the board/executive matters as it can affect the achievement of goals and performance, by both parties. The matrix helps identify what is currently the nature of the relationship and following a conversation to understand where on the matrix a given board stands; the board can spend time understanding both the “why” and “so-what” and decide what if any actions and conversation should next take place.
Toward this end, I recognize that at least some boards follow their regularly scheduled meetings with an executive session, a time without the executive. This is a brief opportunity to take the temperature of the room and assess how the partnership and the members are faring in their service, as well as give a moment to reflect on what was heard at the board meeting and whether meetings really provided the needed structure and time for engagement.
Post-board meeting executive sessions are important for all these purposes, but rarely is there enough time to discuss strategy, particularly what the board can be doing to be a better partner (should this be a goal) and/or discuss what to do about an executive when there is disharmony or even absence of commitment (pretty much not a desirable).
I believe that, annually, it would benefit the board to have (in executive session) an annual discussion about the relationship with their executive—the “feelings” and experiences of the board as it pertains to the “partnership.” This is not but should be informed by the annual performance review. And the session’s primary benefit: strategy development for ensuring that the board and executive are engaged together as a team to ensure the nonprofit achieves the optimum results.