The Board has hired an Executive Director – who makes decisions now for the organization?

In order to work effectively, the Board of Directors and the Executive Director need to understand and support the responsibilities of both roles.

The Minnesota Council of Non-Profits explains the unique relationship between the Executive Director (ED) and the Board of Directors; the ED primarily manages the organization and the Board primarily governs. Management in organizations means to coordinate efforts by planning, organizing and hiring staff to accomplish goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively. For non-profit organizations, governance relates to providing leadership by setting consistent policies; giving decision-rights for specific areas of responsibility, according to David O. Renz, Ph.D. in Nonprofit Governance and the Work of the Board. The Board provides vision and gives basic direction; they should not oversee day-to-day activities. A board that is overly active in management can hinder the organization's effectiveness. Likewise, an ED that oversteps granted authority can steer the organization down an unsuccessful path.

Jan Masaoka writes in the book The best of the board café about the special partnership between a board and their executive director, which is vitally dependent on the strengths of each and the functional ability to support each another in their respective role. Confusion and conflict occurs when those distinctions are not clear. The best partnership occurs when both entities are strong and clear about their roles. Board members do not have individual power or authority, but as a group are responsible for hiring, supervising, supporting and even firing the executive director. The director is accountable to the board as a whole.

However, the distinction between management and governance is not absolute. Even if clear expectations for the director and the board are established and regularly discussed, problems may still exist. Much of the governance literature suggests that job descriptions and task lists often propose a “one size fits all” plan for effectiveness. Recent research challenges this, however, finding that a focus on fulfilling prescribed roles and responsibilities has little, if anything, to do with establishing an effective relationship.

In 2005, 18 board chairs and executive directors from 18 nonprofit organizations in Silicon Valley, Calif. were interviewed individually. Open-ended questions asked about relationship dynamics and their effects on the organizations. Surprisingly, participants’ stories about how they worked together often contradicted commonly-held beliefs about the importance of specific roles in the board-executive director relationship.

Those with the strongest relationships noted the importance of flexibility in negotiating roles. If you focus only on definitions, it doesn’t work effectively. Each board chair in the study had a different perspective about the boundaries of his/her role. Instead, the feeling of give and take and being able to work out responsibilities together was characteristic of the strongest partnerships. Reliance on structure was evident only in low-trust relationships. Flexibility and dialogue were more important than following a job description. Strong trust made that flexibility possible. In addition, adapting to differences in each other’s styles was important both at the beginning of working together and throughout the relationship.

This study highlights the fact that nonprofit leaders need to recognize that the board chair–executive director relationship is an important and powerful resource. They need to work on the relationship, not just in it, to determine how to best develop and strengthen trust. Strict roles and responsibilities can be limiting. Executives and board chairs need to be flexible in how they work together—empowering each other to consider their individual strengths, interests, and the organization’s important work—rather than “going by the definition.”

The Michigan State University Extension Leadership and Community Engagement programs engage participants in learning how to effectively manage conflict, communicate with purpose, and collaborate on solving complex issues in order to move communities forward

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