Balancing Act: The Board and Executive Director Relationship

April 24, 2012

Laura Otten returns to the Dodge Blog to share some of the key takeaways from the Dodge Board/Executive Director Relationship Workshop. If you missed the workshop, and/or want to design a process to explore this issue with your board, be sure to read through this entire post, view the videos (there are more on the Dodge Technical Assistance YouTube Channel), and carve out the time to work with your board on the three valuable exercises. It will be time well spent!

There is, perhaps, no more important relationship in a nonprofit than that between the executive director and the board.  When that relationship is working well, everyone can easily go about his or her business, the mission gets fulfilled and the organization “sings”.  When that relationship is not working well, more time, energy and attention goes to the relationship—venting, railing, wringing of hands, etc.—and not to fulfilling the mission.  Thus, there is great value in understanding the theory of a strong executive director-board partnership, the actual execution of that partnership and identifying where and what, if any, work needs to take place.

As has been mentioned frequently throughout the Dodge Foundation Board Leadership Training Series, the relationship between executive director and board is, ideally, a partnership, albeit a partnership of slight unequals as, at the end of the day, the board is the boss of the executive director.  As such, the board does have “ultimate” power over the executive director in its prerogative to fire the executive director (and not the other way around).  Thus, there is all too frequently a delicate balancing act that an executive director must execute in being part of this partnership and it is important that a board recognizes that and does not abuse that imbalance.  The mutual goal of both halves of this relationship should be to have the best, strongest partnership possible.

Watch this short video clip:

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To do this, both sides must be aware of what a strong, healthy partnership looks like.  As has been pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, it does not take a rocket scientist to be a good board member; it simply takes knowing what it is you are supposed to do, what that looks like in a best practices framework, designing a course of action to move you towards that best practices performance and carrying it out.

9 Characteristics of a Strong Board/Executive Director Partnership

Strong partnerships of any nature, from personal partnerships to professional ones, are recognized as having nine characteristics.

  1. Balance: such that at times one half of the partnership may be more dominant than the other, while at other times it is the reverse; but there is an equilibrium in the distribution of and exercise of power, suggesting that at times it may swing further in one corner than another and then back in the opposite direction, while not infrequently coming to rest in the middle.
  2. Mutual respect: each half of the partnership must hold in high regard the abilities and capabilities of the other.
  3. Mutual trust: each half must trust that the other will act, at all times, with integrity and do what is in the best interests of the whole of the organization and the fulfillment of mission.
  4. Clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, of what is mine and what is theirs: rather self-explanatory, but I will come back to this.
  5. Accountability: important in and of itself, but also as a contributor to engendering mutual respect and trust, players in a partnership must be accountable to the other half and demand and get accountability in return.  While it is impossible to single out any one of the nine characteristics as more or less important to a successful partnership as all are necessary, it is possible to say that without active accountability, there is no basis for moving forward.
  6. Shared ownership, which implies shared goals: we create a partnership because we want to create/be/do something more than any one of us can do on our own.  To be successful, both halves of a partnership must have the same vision for the partnership and shared goals for achieving that vision (all found in a nonprofit’s strategic plan) and have an equal stake in seeing its successful implementation.
  7. Shared leadership: Harkening back to the idea of balance, each partner must be willing to share the leadership of the partnership and be willing to recognize when the strengths of the other half surpasses its own and step back when needed, while also being willing and able to step forward when that is warranted.
  8. Open communication: decades ago, there was a period when it seemed all of my parents’ friends were in marriage counseling and all of these “good” Jewish couples were going to the same marriage counselor—a Jesuit priest.  When I asked one of these couples what they did in marriage counseling, I was told “We talk.  He [the counselor] makes us communicate.  We talk during our session; we make dates to talk between our sessions.  We talk.”  This Jesuit priest saved many a Jewish partnership by teaching them the importance of open and regular communication.
  9. Appreciation: how do you appreciate your partner– from simple thank yous to opportunities for public recognition and expression of gratitude to a positive work environment and compensation–let you count the ways!

Just how good is your executive director-board partnership?  An honest, frank assessment, done with the goal of moving it further along the good-better-best continuum, and not in an atmosphere of blame and recrimination, can be an invaluable use of a board’s and executive director’s time.  Here is a tool that can help guide this process (clicking on the link will download a Word doc). If you are mindful of where you are strong and where there is work to be done, and you have arrived at these conclusions in a collaborative manner, you are on the path to improving the partnership.  And an improved partnership is what is best for maximizing return on mission!

More on the evaluating and improving the board/executive director relationship in this video clip:

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“Whose Job Is This?”

Frequently, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to achieving a high-performing partnership is actually easily rectified:  a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities. While abundantly clear to those of us who make a profession of instructing boards and executive directors on what is theirs and what is not theirs, it is not always so clear to those filling those functions.  In fact, one of the most frequent questions I get is, “Is this the board’s job or the executive director’s?”

To understand this, it is yet again well worth the time to have another conversation.  For starters, identify the major components of running a nonprofit, from mission identification and stewardship, to finances to revenue development to decision making to marketing, etc.  Then look at the particular actions that need to happen in each area and ask and answer “Whose job is this?”  If I may bastardize the German philosopher Hegel’s master-slave dialectic ( with apologies to all philosophers and Hegelians out there), and bring it down to my level, Hegel argued that we define ourselves, in part, by understanding what we are not.  Thus, a master understands who/what he is by understanding what he is not, i.e., a slave. Conversely, the slave understands who/what he is by understanding what he is not, i.e., a master.  In the same vein, we can better understand what is ours and what is theirs by understanding what is an executive director’s role in organizational decision making and what is not, and what is the board’s and what is not.  Many a release of long-held breaths and tensions have resulted from sitting down and having this frank and honest conversation.  The executive director does not make organizational decisions and policies and the board rubber stamps them; rather the executive director provides vital information to the board that informs the board’s and executive director’s collaborative discussion, ending ultimately with the board making the decision and the executive director managing (the execution) of that decision.

Identifying those areas where there is clarity about and agreement on who does what when is important, and can become a vital part of orientation for new board members; discussing those areas where clarity and agreement are still lacking in order to achieve that clarity and agreement and designing a course of corrective action is crucial. This tool (Word doc) may help organize your discussion and thinking.

Reciprocal Agreements

Let me be clear: to have a strong partnership, it is all nine elements or nothing.  Clarifying the roles and responsibilities so that you know what is whose in a partnership is a very important first step, but it is not sufficient. Without clarification of roles, attainment of the other eight elements will be hard to achieve and sustain. Likewise, the same can be said of accountability: if you cannot depend upon the other half of the partnership delivering on what it should do and also what it says it will do, and then depend on how it will do what it says it will do, the partnership is doomed to failure.  One way of addressing this challenge head on is to create very specific and pointed reciprocal agreements.

Reciprocal agreements (a sample, and a template, can be found here) allow the members of a partnership to spell out the rules of engagement, if you will, and accountability.  They spell out the quid pro quo between the executive director and the board (or executive director and board president, executive director and committee chair, board member and board members, etc.).

For example:  the executive director will provide an executive director report to all board members in a timely manner in advance of each board meeting; in turn, every board member will read the executive director’s report in advance of the board meeting.  Or:  each board member will agree to be the relationship steward for five major donors; in turn, the executive director will make sure that each board member has the necessary information and support needed to steward those relationships.  In so crafting these reciprocal agreements, both parties to the partnership have a clear set of expectations and instructions for moving forward, and can point to them when things don’t go right and readily identify the source of the failure and correct the situation.

I suggest that in all of this recognizing, it involves a lot of time, energy, good will and, yes, work. But there are some things that are so integral to achieving success that failure to invest in those things the requisite time, energy, good will, and work is a decision made only by a fool.  Such is the relationship of the executive director and board.  To not invest in its health and strength is to doom a nonprofit to being less than the public has a right to expect and its clients deserve.

You can find these three exercises, plus much more in the Resource Library on the Dodge Foundation website.