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Means and Ends: Who does What

What’s the biggest source of friction we hear about from our nonprofit clients and board candidates? The answer:  where the line should be between what nonprofit board members can and should do and what responsibilities more properly reside with the staff of the nonprofit.  Luckily for us, governance consultant Tom Okarma has written a terrific guest post for us this week on exactly this topic.  Thanks for your great advice Tom!

Means and Ends: Who does What


One of the major causes of friction in the area of nonprofit leadership and poor nonprofit board performance, and a big reason why boards and CEO’s may part ways, is poor boundary setting between the board and the CEO. For most agencies, everyone understands each person’s role and how they fit together to form one collaborative, well-oiled machine. However, periodically I run across a board characterized by distrust, second-guessing, and a level of animosity. And the reason often can be traced to a lack of communication and confusion over “who does what”.

Now, I’m not talking about having an occasional prickly pear on board who likes to challenge. That can be helpful if not overdone. I am talking about a true team that has the best interests of the agency at heart

Now this is a big enough problem during board meetings, but when unclear boundary issues leak into day-to-day operations (as they eventually will) the agency may be headed for some PR, employee/staff attitude, and operational problems. Staff and volunteers are smart and can sense when all is not well with leadership. So can the local community.

John Carver has written extensively on board governance and discusses “means and ends” as a way to differentiate between what board responsibilities and CEO responsibilities. Without reading all of his work, and at the risk of oversimplification, you can come to the conclusion there are two main buckets in nonprofit leadership governance: the means to get things done (values, mission statement, policy manuals, checks and balances) and the ends the entity is trying to achieve (eliminating hunger or joblessness, training teen moms to parent their children, eliminating financial or scholastic illiteracy. Board trouble arises when there is no clarity in who does what.

So, if your board and CEO are constantly at loggerheads, often over seemingly petty issues, I have a couple of suggestions. Here are ways to strengthen you nonprofit board’s performance

  • Without assessing blame, call out the problem at a board meeting, giving examples of how it is adversely affecting the agency, both internally and externally
  • Suggest scheduling a board discussion on the topics of means and ends in which the board and CEO can decide and agree on together, how much into the “means” the board should rightfully insert itself, and to what degree the CEO has voice in “ends” discussions.  Then write it down so it is captured for future reference. This will look differently for each agency, based on prior practices, age and size of the agency, and other considerations.
  • Then agree to write a Policy and Procedure Manual to capture and retain the agreements made at that time and to serve as a receptacle for future decisions
  • Determine if the agency’s job descriptions for Board Chair, CEO and its directors are up to date. If not, update them ASAP
  • Consider altering your agency Value Statement to include “Transparency” and take time to discuss just what that value looks like when it is present at board meetings and during board discussions. How do people recognize transparency and know it when they see it?
  • Consider having the board chair and CEO hold periodic informal check-ins to be sure any lingering issues are brought up in a timely fashion and are not allowed to fester.

Now, adopting these tips cannot guarantee you will never have board problems,but it can sure help you lead a more cohesive agency.


Tom Okarma is a product of the south side of Chicago and currently resides in the greater Chicago area. He has over 30 years of varied and progressive experience in the insurance industry, rising from claims representative to small business owner to Chief Executive Officer.  Tom wanted to leverage his extensive background to fulfill his true calling–working with nonprofit leaders and directors with one over-riding goal–equipping those organizations to have the greatest impact on the people they serve.  With that goal in mind, he started Vantage Point, helping make board service easier, more rewarding, and more effective through common sense governance, effective strategic planning and key board development techniques.  This post originally appeared on the Vantage Point website.