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How to Be A Great Board Partner (In 8 Easy Steps)

The best relationships - of any kind - often take the form of partnerships;  during which the parties involved work together to create a particular outcome or reach some type of mutually beneficial goal. The same can be said for the nature of board/staff relationships at nonprofit organizations - the most effective and mutually satisfying arrangements happen between people who take a collaborative approach to their service/work. Contrary to the hierarchical structures found in most organizations, partnerships require open communication, trust, and a willingness by all participants to let go of unnecessary power dynamics. 


In this type of supportive atmosphere, board members expend less energy asserting power over staff and more energy empowering them to do effective work. They focus on governance and direction from 30,000 feet, while trusting and respecting the boots on the ground. Most of all, they aim to set up their executive directors for success - as an important means to furthering the organizational mission. 


On their surface, boards routinely offer platitudes about inclusivity and respect and they may even give lip service to proclamations of support and camaraderie (all of which apply only to their fellow board members when the rubber meets the road). This disconnect sets the stage for adversarial relationships, mismatched expectations, and unsustainability. Many of the executive directors I’ve spoken to have expressed feeling like they have all of the responsibility and [almost] none of the control - which is neither respectful nor supportive.


So, what does it mean to set an executive director up for success?  Every great board partner I’ve worked with understands the importance of elevating and bolstering the work of the executive director (or other paid leader) in order to advance the mission. In fact, there are many practical, substantive elements that all executive directors need in order to be successful - elements that their board partners can help provide.  


Here are 8 of them and how you can deliver: 


  1. Legitimacy. How to facilitate it: confirm that the Executive Director position is mentioned in your organization’s bylaws and that the appropriate powers and limitations of the position are explained. If the highest paid staff position - and a summary of their role - is not included in the bylaws, it’s as if they don’t exist. 
  2. Influence. How to facilitate it: ensure that the executive director has adequate management authority over the day to day operations that will lead to the accomplishment of the organization's goals. Are they at liberty to take the necessary steps to get the job done? If not, ask why. 
  3. Credibility. How to facilitate it: encourage the ED to become positioned as a thought leader or subject-matter expert in an area relevant to your mission. *This includes helping the ED identify the time and space necessary to do creative work. 
  4. Expertise. How to facilitate it: prioritize professional development by creating the funds, time, and backup to make continuing education opportunities possible. 
  5. Cooperation. How to facilitate it: help ensure that the board is properly and regularly trained so that they may better understand their roles and responsibilities and can make the distinction between governance and management. Prioritize these training opportunities when developing meeting agendas.
  6. Functionality. How to facilitate it: confirm that appropriate term limits for board members are listed in the bylaws. Boards with healthy turnover function better and can often avoid giving rise to ‘dominant subgroups’ that disrupt progress. 
  7. Financial Literacy. How to facilitate it: verify that the budgeting process and other financial decision-making processes are managed by the ED. Even if other board or staff members are responsible for doing the work, the executive director must oversee and understand the proceedings. (If not, see: Expertise)
  8. Alignment. How to facilitate it: your executive director’s job is to successfully carry out the mission of the organization. You can help by supporting projects that are aligned with the mission and letting go of projects that are outside the scope - regardless of group politics or individual motivations. 



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