#RelationshipGoals: How to Build a Great Board/Executive Director Partnership

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Cyndee Patterson

This is the second of four columns on how to develop a great nonprofit board. To read the first column, click here

One relationship in your nonprofit is more important than any other. It’s between your executive director and the board. If that relationship is thriving, the organization hums. If it’s not, the whole organization suffers, including the people you hope to serve.

At The Lee Institute, which offers services to strengthen individuals and organizations committed to building great communities, we’ve found creating a great executive director-board relationship comes down to five steps:

  1. Make sure you hire the right executive director for your organization. 
  2. Create an environment so that the executive director – we’ll say “ED” for short – wants to stay. 
  3. Encourage frequent and honest communication. 
  4. Be clear on your roles. 
  5. Be clear on your goals. 

Let’s look more closely at each step. 

Hire well. You want a leader who is passionate about your cause, ethical, and humble. Your organization, not the ED, must come first because the ED is a temporary steward of your organization’s ideas and vision.   

Look for a leader who is creative and willing to fail, which means your board needs to embrace an ED who will test new things and learn from experiences. Don’t pick a superstar ED for name or reputation alone; make sure the candidate’s skillset and character are a good fit for your organization.  

Your ideal candidate also needs to acknowledge being the top development person in the organization. The ED can’t be shy about building relationships with donors and prospective donors. Without donors, there are no resources to help your organization grow.

Make the executive director want to stay.  Offer compensation that reflects the value of the position, the organization, and the person, and plan for an annual performance and compensation review.  Set aside time and money for the ED’s professional development training. Provide adequate staff who will make it possible for the ED to accomplish goals, have time for strategic thinking, take vacations, and recharge.

Don’t forget that fabulous leader you hired is also human. Give her feedback and praise so she knows she is valued. It can feel natural as a board member to be vocal when things go wrong, but it takes intention to say thanks when things are going great. 

Here’s another secret. Being an ED is a difficult job. If you’re good at it, your working life and regular life are joined, you’re always on, and you’ll eventually need a break. Give your director time to partake in “one fun thing.” It could be a side project, a hobby, travel, or any interest that allows your director to have a life outside of work. If your director gets his energy from kayaking, make sure he has the freedom to go on an amazing kayaking trip each year. “One fun thing” can refresh your director for optimal results at work. 

Communicate. Start with a clear job description and openness about where the organization may have shortcomings. If you want the executive director to increase donations, for instance, do you have the development staff to support that goal? If not, do you plan to expand the staff, or does the current staff structure allow the ED to spend a large percentage of her time in the development role?

Once the new ED is in place, the board chair and the ED should hold a standing meeting to discuss important matters, where both feel free to lay it on the table. Schedule a report from the ED in every board meeting, covering anything from staff issues to budgeting and finance to programming advances.

Above all, discourage “parking lot” conversations. Whatever is worth saying is worth saying to your executive director.

Be clear about roles. The board hires, assesses, sets compensation for and replaces the ED. The ED hires, assesses, sets compensation for and replaces everyone else.

The board should not get involved in day-to-day activities of the organization – that’s the ED’s domain. If someone on your board wants to pick the font for the annual report, pull the board member aside to clarify roles and what you need most from board members.

We believe it’s also critically important for the ED to be involved in identifying the talents needed in potential board recruits and to be engaged in the recruitment. 

Be clear about goals. The ED should know what is expected of her, and those goals should be realistic. We see organizations get into trouble by setting too-hopeful goals for fundraising or program participation, when not enough people feel connected to the organization to warrant the goals.  Another example is geographic expansion. Don’t ask your ED to extend your organization into a new market if the ED doesn’t think you’re ready. (Remember that your organization’s strategic plan will help you create appropriate goals which align with your vision and mission, and keep the ED and board moving in the same direction.)

The ED is the public face of your organization. The right one will get your board, staff, and volunteers revved up about what you do and how you contribute to the greater good. For all those reasons, it pays to cultivate a great relationship with this key leader.   


Cyndee Patterson is president of The Lee Institute, a nonprofit that offers strategic planning and other services to strengthen organizations, empower leaders and engage citizens so they can build great communities. Reach her at pmartin@tlwf.org or learn more at leeinstitute.org.

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