Boards of Directors: A Partnership Joining the Executive and the Volunteer Leaders

A reader raised a series of questions with me about the relationship between the chief executive officer and the board of directors of a non-profit organization. When we think about the role of the board of directors (and the responsibility they have for setting the policies guiding the agency; for insuring the social sanction given to the professionals providing services to the community; for assuring the financial sustainability of the organization; and for providing accountability to the community for the use of valuable resources and for the professional level of the services, among other functions) we think about what enables it to function effectively and efficiently.

Actually it is a multi-faceted approach that involves both the professional and the volunteer leaders in an on-going relationship. The key is clarity as to the role of each of the partners and a solid conceptual understanding each has of themselves and the other in their relationship. In this posting, I would like to identify the key components necessary to have a healthy productive relationship between the partners and strengthens the non-profit organization at the same time.

I would like to begin with the chief executive officer’s conception and perception of the role of the board of directors. It is not uncommon for professionals to rise to executive positions without a clear understanding of the role of the board and what role they have in facilitating the work of the board. In the culture of non-profit organizations professionals rise up through the system and move from positions of lesser responsibility to positions of greater responsibility. It is quite common for a line worker to become a supervisor and then assume a management position and move on to be a candidate for the chief executive officer of a non-profit.

Although the work with the board of directors is a central piece of the executive’s responsibilities it is quite possible for someone to move into this position without having either a continuing educational experience or professional experience with volunteer leaders who are involved in the governance of non-profit organizations. If the executive did not attend an advance degree program focused on non-profit management it is highly unlikely that he or she participated in a formal educational course on the purpose, role and function of boards of directors. Until recently there has been a reliance on people learning from their professional experiences and to use this as a building block to the next position as they continue to assume positions with greater administrative responsibility as executives.

In order for an executive to be able to work successfully with the volunteer leadership there needs to be a conceptual understanding of the crucial role the board plays in developing the non-profit organization. Building on this framework the ideas are turned into practice through the relationship between the executive and the volunteer leadership. Each partner has expectations of the other and they both have to be clear about their roles and how they work together. Part and parcel of the relationship is the executive’s ability to educate the volunteer leadership and assist them in understanding their roles and responsibilities in governing the non-profit organization.

Most executives would like the volunteer leadership on the board to assume responsibility for fund raising and for insuring the financial sustainability of the organization. Although this is an essential aspect of their responsibility it is not limited to this sphere. Executives also have to nurture and support the board’s role in establishing and implementing policies that guide the agency’s developing. They have a responsibility for setting standards for professional practice and minimal educational requirements for the staff; they have to ensure the highest fiscal controls are in place so the agency can be transparent in its financial dealings; and to be accountable for the total functioning of the organization in the community.

Of course the appropriate structures have to be in place to assure that the board is able carry out its responsibilities. This is defined by the organization’s “by-laws” that not only state the mission of the agency but also spell out exactly how the governance is implemented. The document defines the key volunteer leadership positions; it names the standing committees and specifies their responsibilities; and it clarifies the role of the board and how often it needs to meet each year. In addition it also provides terms of office and how volunteer leaders are selected, nominated, and voted on to the board.

The partnership is created by the executive’s knowledge and understanding of the role and function of volunteer leadership in providing for the governance of the organization. It is met more than halfway by the volunteer leaders fulfilling their responsibilities through a clearly defined structure. When each party has an understanding of the role they play in the organization then they can assist each other in building and strengthening the non-profit agency.

Even when all the steps are followed in creating the organization’s structure there are issues, conflicts and dilemmas that arise in non-profits. I will explore these in forthcoming postings. In the meantime take a look at the voluntary organization(s) that you are involved with and ask yourself whether the role and function of the board of directors is defined clearly and if there is a working partnership between the chief executive officer and the volunteer leadership.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.