Board members and executive directors at nonprofits have the same goal - to have a strong leadership relationship so that the organization is stronger. This, though, is not common. What is more prevalent is a disengaged board, a distrusting executive director, and an unrealized relationship. 

Changing this narrative comes down to passion, communication, and accountability. Trust is cultivated when both the board and the executive director wants to be there, are interested in everyone’s contributions, and have a desire for transparency.

As a board member, you are uniquely positioned. While the executive director is running both the details and the high level, you view the nonprofit at the strategic and organizational level, unencumbered by the day to day details. It is the board's role to assist, prompt, and/or push the executive director toward improvement. Here are 3 practical ways a board can do this: 

Start with Passion

The basic criteria of your participation on the board is a commitment to the organization’s mission. When the executive director brought you onto the board, what they were really looking for is a partner that has a strong desire to work and to help. That’s what passion means to the executive director. 

How you demonstrate your passion is by:

  • Freely opening up your network and contacts to the executive director 
  • Actively looking for new opportunities for the organization
  • Being fully present during board meetings to know what is happening among the leadership in the organization’s execution or in the sector. 

The way to examine your passion is by regularly asking yourself the following questions:

After every board meeting ask yourself:  

  • Did I strengthen the organization’s leadership or their execution. If not, what can I contribute to the next meeting? 
  • Was I adequately prepared for this meeting? 

Quarterly ask yourself: 

  • Am I contributing to the good of the community through my work on the board? 
  • What can I do to impact our target community through my board involvement? 

The way to examine your passion is by asking yourself questions; the way to strengthen relationships with others is by encouraging good dialogue. 

Facilitate Ongoing Healthy Conversations

Healthy communication relies on everyone’s contributions to the discussion. Ask those who tend to not speak up for their input. You don’t have to put people on the spot, but gently asking them if they have any thoughts is a great way to help everyone feel heard and valued. Give others time in the meeting to contribute to the conversation by allowing pauses in the dialogue. To avoid “group think,” a term that describes what can happen when a group prioritizes consensus so much that it results in irrational decision-making, assign one person the role of the “discussion critic” or “devil’s advocate.” This person - which can rotate each meeting - is responsible to argue the counterpoints in a discussion. The benefit to considering all aspects is that it forces multiple viewpoints to be expressed, encouraging diversity of thought.  

Lead conversations by example through active listening and asking clarifying questions. A few examples of clarifying questions are: 

  • Why do you say that? How does that relate to...?
  • What do you think causes that to happen?
  • What would be another alternative?
  • Why is this solution the best one?
  • What are the downstream effects of this decision? 

Allow yourself to ask basic questions to truly understand the matter. 

Actively Pursue Accountability:

Finally, ask your executive director for accountability (if it doesn’t already exist). Many executive directors can be reluctant to have board job descriptions, conduct annual board evaluations, and document policies and procedures out of fear of how their expectations and feedback might be received. Taking the initiative to seek clarity and accountability can alleviate some of these concerns, and show the executive director that accountability is a healthy, constructive component in the board-executive relationship.

Board Members and executive directors can work toward a high-trust, high-respect, high-transparency relationship by aligning on passion, prioritizing healthy conversations and pursuing mutual accountability. If all 3 of these components exist a solid foundation will be laid to build toward long term healthy outcomes for the board, organization, and most importantly the community being served.

anne york circle
Anne York

I am the Program Manager for For the City Ventures. Professionally, I've worked in management consulting, tech, and e-commerce. I earned an MBA from the University of Texas-Austin, and a double major in History and Political Science from Hillsdale College. I live in Austin with my husband and three kids. On the weekends, you can find us doing home improvements or soaking up all the fun that Austin has to offer.