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Is Your Board Properly Supporting Your Executive Director

One of a board member’s main roles—while rarely discussed—is to support the executive director (ED). Yes, finance and risk management are important, but this might be the most important job you will undertake as a board member. It requires a deep understanding of the ED’s roles and your place in making that person successful…without micromanaging.  For help understanding this complex relationship, we turned to nonprofit consultant and author Susan Schaefer in this week’s blog.

Is Your Board Properly Supporting Your Executive Director

One of a board member’s main roles—while rarely discussed—is to support the executive director (ED). Yes, finance and risk management are important, but this might be the most important job you will undertake as a board member. It requires a deep understanding of the ED’s roles and your place in making that person successful…without micromanaging.

What Is the Relationship Between the Board and the ED?

The executive director has a unique role in your agency. The ED is sandwiched between the board and staff: reporting and accountable to a multi-person board, and often managing multiple staff. The ED walks a tightrope that can be challenging on even the best of days. So when a nonprofit employs an executive, the most important role a board can play is that of a partner and supporter. You’re not likely to find much about this responsibility in board job descriptions, but it can make the difference between a nonprofit that flourishes and one that languishes. How? The board works as a group—and with the ED—to foster communication, transparency, trust, and excitement over a shared vision. The board cannot achieve those things alone.

It’s hard to overstate how easily an adversarial relationship with the ED can creep into the culture, so watch out for it and speak out when you see its signs. That doesn’t mean that a board should rubber stamp an ED’s ideas or overlook unethical practices. A fine line exists between oversight and smothering, between empowering the ED and letting that person run wild.

When your ED is working hard and working well, it’s your job to support the one and only employee who reports to the board. Assuming that you have a well-intentioned, ethical executive at the helm, the board should avoid a “gotcha” mindset. “We’ve got your back,” is more like it.

What Can You Do to Start the Relationship Right?

Because board members often have limited involvement in a nonprofit’s everyday workings, the ED is an important link between the board and the organization’s struggles and successes. So, the ED-board relationship must be built on trust. Board members must trust that the executive will provide necessary information that allows them to govern effectively. And, the ED needs to trust that the board is committed to creating a partnership that is supportive of the position’s demanding and unique roles and responsibilities. If trust feels weak on either side of that equation, it can help to foster regular conversations about it.

How else might you begin to cement a solid relationship between your ED and the board? For starters, be willing to step up and assume responsibility. Don’t sit on your hands and wait for someone else to pitch in. Good EDs love proactive board members.

Also, be willing to serve as an ambassador and a fundraiser. A committed group of board rainmakers takes some of the burden off the ED’s shoulders. As a bonus, those roles enable your ED to brag to funders—and even fellow executives—about this organization’s stellar board.

Most important, no matter how small or large your promises, follow through on everything that you agree to do. If you neglect a task you agreed to complete, you might create even more work for your staff leader if you leave the work undone and force the ED to contact you multiple times with reminders!

What Kind of Ongoing Support Can You Provide?

We can’t think of a better way to begin your time on a board than to explore how you might support your ED on a day-to-day basis. As you pursue these items, they’re bound to engender trust, too. Here are a few ideas:

  • Get to know the ED. Ask questions about the job, its challenges, how that person prefers to work with the board and its individual members, and how you can be most helpful given your skill sets. Offer to attend meetings with donors, community leaders, and public officials, all of which showcase yours as an involved board.
  • Know your role. In other words, don’t offer advice or otherwise tell staffers what to do. That’s the ED’s job. (The exception, of course, comes if you see something unethical.)
  • Provide balanced feedback. Does your board just criticize the ED? Or, is everything wonderful on a regular basis? Most EDs are driven people who want to make a difference, so they value thoughtful, constructive input on both sides of the spectrum.
  • Pay a competitive salary. Many issues of executive turnover stem from a lack of a competitive salary. Granted, this is not the corporate sector, but research what other EDs in your sector, in your region of the country, with your budget are paid. If the organization’s current budget cannot bear the full market rate salary, work gradually toward your goal. Your ED will appreciate the intention.

There are so many ways to support your ED.  Be creative, but don’t forget to focus on the primary mode of support: an annual performance evaluation.  Your organization—and your executive—will be better for it.

 

This blog is excerpted from the new book, Nonprofit Board Service for the GENIUS, written by Susan Schaefer and Bob Wittig. Susan is a consultant, writer, and speaker. Susan’s practical approach to fundraising and board development has made her a frequent presenter at conferences and in classrooms, including a course she teaches at Johns Hopkins University. In 2001, Susan founded Resource Partners LLC, which guides nonprofits to meet their income goals within their unique financial and human resource limitations.