The Secret Sauce of a Strong Board Chair-ED Partnership

Perhaps it’s because I’m hungry while writing this, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about sauce—more particularly, the secret sauce of nonprofits that rise above the rest. Any of us tied to the sector could probably make an argument for what propels some nonprofits and stalls others. A healthy culture. Diverse funding. Impactful programs. Good people—paid and unpaid staff. An engaged Board. Sound fiscal stewardship. Investments in capacity building. Innovation and entrepreneurialism. So many things. And while all of these are important, the creation and sustainability of all of these tangible and not so tangible resources boils down to one thing: rock solid leadership.

Much like your favorite pasta sauce or pizza marinara, the right combination of ingredients between your Executive Director (ED) and Board Chair can set up your organization for success now and in the days to come.  This relationship is important in normal times. Add on a global pandemic and the need for this unwavering foundation becomes even more important.

So, what are the mix of ingredients that help this relationship fire on all cylinders?

  • Support – Some days suck. And on those days, we can all use a trusted confidant to turn to—to lift us up, offer a few encouraging words, or just listen to us vent for a bit. Many EDs admit that it is the loneliest job in the world. Friends and significant others tire of the stories, and while there are days we may be tempted, we can’t just start ranting to staff, board members, donors, and others in our hemisphere. A Board Chair who understands how to listen and offer support during days like these is invaluable. And to the Board Chair who is putting their best foot forward, working to engage all board members, serving as a good example, and giving generously, the same holds true. Discouragement happens. Bad days happen. And we can all use some encouragement and maybe even a shoulder to cry on during those challenging days.
  • Accountability – When we start a new workout regime, we often turn to friends and family to share our new-found goal and to hold us accountable when we can’t trust ourselves. It’s so much easier to not follow through on these commitments when we just internalize them rather than having some source of external accountability. The same holds true at work. We are creatures of comfort, and the easy path is to keep doing what we’ve always done, and yet we sometimes realize this needs to change. It’s no longer working. Old patterns and habits are holding back the organization and its mission. This is where accountability really comes in handy. What do you as an ED need to do but just haven’t had the courage to move forward with? What do you as a Board Chair want to leave as your leadership legacy, and how are you moving toward that goal? By sharing this with each other and using each other for shared accountability, we can move mountains as individuals, an organization, and as a sector. Why are you waiting?
  • Usefulness – It’s common sense that people want to feel useful. For each of us it may mean something different, but generally speaking, people want to feel like their actions and efforts are valued and valuable—that they have a positive impact. For a Board Chair and ED one way to feel useful is to define what success looks like as a team. After you’ve worked together, what will be different a year from now? What will have positively changed? How can each of you work independently, as a team, and leading your own teams (the Board Chair leading the Board and the ED leading the staff) to reach that desired outcome? Discussing this, fleshing out your expectations, and creating a plan of how you will make that come to fruition will provide the underpinning for your work together now and in the following months. The more useful each party feels and the more useful the partnership is, the easier it will be to commit the time and energy needed to reach new heights.
  • Communication – Many who have attended PiP workshops have heard me talk about “no surprises.” Years ago I had a nonprofit client who was steadfast in sharing with his Board when he heard negative news in the community about the organization he led. I asked him one day why he did this. I mean, after all, it’s like shining a light on what people are saying about your organization in the community, and that can feel pretty risky, especially when it’s controversial. He simply said, “No surprises. I don’t ever want my Board to be surprised if they hear something, and I also want them to know that I’m not hiding anything from them.” His strategy worked really well. Ever since then, I have used this as a cornerstone of my work with nonprofit leadership teams. Nobody likes to be surprised. Surprises eat away at trust—sometimes even in the blink of an eye when we’ve worked years to build these relationships.
  • Empathy – During this time of unrest, one gift that has arisen is the topic of empathy. While not everybody is a pro at exercising their empathy muscle, the concept has become more common place. Imagine for a moment if we could all put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand why they might see things the way they do, given their background, experiences, and upbringing. I believe we’d have a kinder society, one where we worked to find common ground rather than fight for our unique individualistic perspectives with no regard to the other person’s reality. Let’s face it. The Board Chair will often have a different perspective. The Chair is a volunteer giving money (hopefully!) and time to your organization. She knows how it feels to work long weeks and still have another job—being a board member. She is probably often in a state of overwhelm and a struggle for more time. That perspective can be invaluable in finding a middle ground for EDs who often complain about the detached or unengaged board member. If both can put themselves in the other’s shoes, not only will the relationship benefit, but so will the organization.

Well, there you have it–the secret sauce ingredients to strengthen your Board Chair/ED relationship! Any ingredients you would add to this secret sauce recipe?

We will highlight your comments on a future edition of our monthly PiP Squeak, so be sure to share with us. Now, go eat that piece of pizza! We sure will J.


This article is written by Stacey Wedding, CEO/Chief Strategist of Professionals in Philanthropy.