Building Productive Relationships Between a Nonprofit CEO and Board of Directors

by Danielle Bloom

3 min read

Your nonprofit’s board and CEO or executive director share responsibility for the success of the organization but may have different perspectives and approaches. These differences can lead to conflict, which can hinder your organization’s ability to handle your nonprofit’s operations and growth. With a proactive approach, you can forge a productive relationship that helps your organization run smoothly, so everyone meets their goals.

Discuss Expectations

Traditionally, your nonprofit board hires a CEO and provides top-level governance while developing strategy and managing the day-to-day operations in your office. Unlike in a corporation, the CEO does not usually sit on the board or have voting power, which presents challenges unique to the nonprofit world. The relationship between governing and managing can be cloudy, so before you do anything else, it’s important to talk expectations. It helps to have the CEO and chairman of the board meet and explain how they see their roles relative to each other. Once everything is on the table, you can identify and discuss potential conflict areas. If you anticipate conflict, you can consider using a moderator to help with compromise. If the board wants final approval on all spending decisions, but the CEO would prefer more freedom, you might agree that all purchases above a certain dollar amount require approval. Whatever the compromise, everyone should come away from this meeting with a shared understanding of clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

Allow Flexibility

Flexibility is an important part of a CEO-board relationship. Rigid roles don’t work for every organization, and your nonprofit might be better served by responsibilities that shift based on the situation. If your team needs specialized communications training and you have a marketing executive on the board, your CEO might ask that board member to work with the staff. A CEO who has specialized financial experience may take an active role in the board’s fiscal-planning meetings. As long as everyone is in agreement and working toward the same goal, flexibility can help you advance the mission.

Establish Dialogue

Open communication, even when it’s uncomfortable, can transform your CEO-board relationship. Regular discussions keep everyone on the same page and help air tensions before they become serious. They also provide opportunities for the CEO to communicate pressing issues to the board, so board members can take action. Regular meetings and visits encourage open dialogue. The CEO might stop in for the first 15 minutes of every board meeting, or board members might come into the office for a casual chat once a month. While emails offer quick and easy communication, in-person meetings make it easier to foster empathy and provide clarity.

Build Trust

Trust is the bedrock of CEO-board relations. When your board believes your CEO is capable and competent, it’s easier to avoid micromanaging. Likewise, your CEO should be able to trust the board to make sensible decisions. If you are struggling, it can be helpful to put aside biases and focus on your shared goal: your nonprofit’s mission.

Involve Board Members

Chances are, your directors or trustees joined the board to make a real difference. Your CEO can increase board engagement by involving board members as much as possible between meetings. You can start by asking the board members about what they hope to contribute on an individual level, and then take action. You can invite a well-connected member to cocktails with a potential donor or ask a high-ranking executive to provide feedback on your strategic plan. If a board member offers to help with web development, you can bring that member in to work with your staff on a new website. Using their skills makes them feel engaged and useful, and the firsthand experience helps them operate more efficiently. When your CEO and board are invested in building a productive relationship, your nonprofit benefits. By encouraging communication and staying focused on your mission, you can create strong bonds and a positive atmosphere.

References & Resources

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