Board Leadership: The Key to a Strong Founder-Board Relationship

February 4, 2015



I love founders.

When I think of amazing nonprofits and the incredible work they do, I cannot help but appreciate the creative and dedicated individuals who gave them their starts. But every up-side has a down-side — even when it comes to founders.

Laura Otten
Laura Otten

Too few founders understand their role, boundaries, strengths and weaknesses, and too few recognize when it is time to move on. In addition, too few boards understand how to work with a founder.

The relationship between board and executive director is a challenging one made even more complex when a founder is part of the equation. In the beginning, a founder tends to be all parts of that equation — executive director, staff, board member, board president, fundraiser, chief strategist, etc.

Over time, however, the roles must be differentiated. The founder and board must decide — is the founder part of the staff or part of the board? There is simply no way to be both.

As the delineation of roles play out, it is critical that boards step up to the plate and govern rather than be the founder’s admirer and yay-sayer.

In a strong, healthy and sustainable nonprofit, the relationship between board and executive director is a balanced partnership of slight unequals, recognizing that ultimately the board is the boss of the executive director. This dynamic is still 100 percent true even when the founder chooses the role of executive director.

lunatics keep their equilibriium under the full moon

Just as board presidents have no more power and authority than any other board member — they just have much more work and responsibility — so it is with a founder.  The founder executive director has no more power than the non founder executive director.

In every balanced partnership, there will be times when one partner leads and the other follows, as required by the tasks at hand, changes in circumstances, and even individuals’ strengths, and vice versa. At times, each partner will lead equally together.

Unfortunately, it is far too common in the nonprofit sector to find an imbalanced partnership between the founder and board. Simply, this is not good.

First, let’s be clear — no one owns a nonprofit, not even a founder. It is not her organization; it is not his to run as he wants. Nonprofits are for and of the public, and the board is charged with being the surrogate public and ensuring mission promises are being delivered.

Boards that think they are doing the founder a favor by being nice to them are actually failing in their role. It really does take a village to raise a successful and sustainable nonprofit.

Second, a strategically built board should complement — not replicate — the expertise and talents of the executive director and staff. No matter how brilliant a founder is in launching a dream, odds are extremely high that there are aspects of running this new mission-driven business that s/he doesn’t possess and that is how a board rounds out the human resources needed to implement the mission.

Odds are also high that a founder needs the objectivity and calm that a board should bring to insure measured and sustainable evolution rather than the frenzied “let’s-do-it-all” approach that founders so often love — after all, this is part of why we value the enthusiasm of founders. But neither doing it all and all at once, nor doing it all one person’s way, is the best way to build an organization that will be around to serve generations to come.

Third, a board’s job is to provide oversight not only of the money and mission but also the executive director. Unless the organization is a performing arts organization, a board has one person to supervise — the executive director. It doesn’t matter if the founder is the executive director.

A smart founder — or any executive director — should welcome the collective input and sharing of ideas among bright, committed board members. At the end of that synergy should come a richer, better execution of a founder’s goal: Delivering mission promises now and into the future.

An enlightened board should recognize when to act as a springboard, give direction or provide asked-for assistance. It also needs to recognize when to get out of the way to allow the founder to do her/his own thing and when to be in charge.

After all, a supervisor is part of a system of checks and balances. And should that supervisor determine that the subordinate is no longer the best person for the job, regardless of whether that subordinate founded the organization or not, the supervisor’s job — and moral obligation to the mission, clients, donors, other employees, the public — is to remove that person from her/his position.

Finally, a board that permits a founder to run it all will never be prepared when the inevitable happens and the founder leaves — whether this is by mutual agreement or not or it is planned or not.

A board that doesn’t know how to be a board, that doesn’t understand the organization, its mission, work, finances and partners, is useless at times of executive transition, one of the most crucial moments in an organization’s history. It is during this period of transition — beginning several months before an executive director leaves through the first six months of a new executive’s tenure — that the board is leading, and strongly so.  If this doesn’t happen, there is a leader vacuum, no matter how much the outgoing executive “leans in” and how quickly the new one gets acclimated. The board must step in and fill that void or risk the organization rolling backwards. Most founders, or any executive director, don’t want that.


Beyond the need for the founder and board to recognize the importance of leading the organization in partnership, two things must be present to turn recognition into action: mutual trust and respect.

Each partner must trust that the other will always act with integrity and in the best interests of the mission and each must respect the skills, knowledge and commitment the other brings to the table.

Only with mutual trust and respect can participants work on attaining shared leadership that is essential for organizational vitality and sustainability.

 Laura Otten is Executive Director at The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University. She is also a faculty member of the Dodge Technical Assistance Initiative. Find out more about our nonprofit capacity building workshops here. Photos via Creative Commons