What Does the Board/Staff Partnership Look Like?

Early in my career, I attended an in-house governance training where I learned my first reliable metaphor for describing the role of a nonprofit governing board vis a vis the role of the chief executive (CEO) /staff. Simply put, you can look at the relationship as a bicycle: the board is the front wheel (steering, giving direction, maintaining overall control, etc.) and staff/management makes up the gears and back wheel (generating power, creating motion, "doing the work", etc.)

Image: luismolinero/Adobe Stock
This illustration has been my "go-to" example for years because of how succinctly it describes what can sometimes seem like a complicated dynamic. I mean, how often do everyday board members struggle to articulate what they are supposed to do in relation to their chief executive? And how often do chief executives look at the board and wish they knew how to better tap into its potential? So, I find this simple, dichotomous image to be a helpful way to provide some clarity.

That said, I have to acknowledge that describing nonprofit governance as a "bicycle" has limitations. After all, it is rather alienating to compare a complex, living organization with an inanimate object which, in most cases, is operated by a single individual. Often times, when I have used the bicycle metaphor, it has been to perpetuate some institutionalized assumptions about how the role of the board is separate and distinct from that of staff. In real space however, I think it's easy for the concept of "separate and distinct" to be felt as inherently isolated from the rest of the organization.

Image: Klara Viskova/Adobe Stock
But that doesn't really hold water when you acknowledge that the relationship between board and CEO/staff is meant to be a partnership. Both the board and staff, which is led by the CEO, have particular responsibilities, but neither can fulfill all of their duties without engaging the input, insight and support of the other. Further, the organization cannot thrive with out the mutual cooperation of both board and staff. The BoardSource report Leading With Intent: 2017 Index of Nonprofit Board Practices underscores this reality by noting: "If the board and executive are not working well together, the organization can suffer in a whole host of ways: a lack of strategic alignment, a toxic or contentious culture, or the inability to leverage the leadership potential of the board, executive, or both." (p. 32)

To better articulate this, my new go-to illustration is to think of an organization's governance as like a viking ship (yes, my Scandinavian-American side makes me a tad biased here). Imagine a nonprofit as made up of a team of navigators and a team of rowers, both of which depend on communication and commitment from the other in order to reach the overall mission... whether that be to sail around fjords, invade a village or provide social services to a community in need.

For example, it is pretty well understood that nonprofit boards are responsible for setting the mission, vision and establishing the strategic direction of the organization. Yet, most boards can't do that without advice and input of staff leaders, who likely have more direct experience with implementing strategy in the current environment. On the flip side, how can staff leaders effectively design and implement programs and services without understanding the board's expected outcomes? In the context of associations and other nonprofits where board members bring certain subject matter expertise to the table, staff leaders would be remiss not to capture the unique perspectives of their volunteer leaders to inform program implementation.

The challenge that I have often observed in nonprofits is the struggle to discern the differences between partnership, oversight and over-reach. Boards can sometimes feel as though getting too close to a CEO can obscure their ability to provide oversight over management. On the other hand, boards can also become too deferential to the CEO to the point where they become a "rubber stamp" - always signing off on the CEO's decisions without asking many questions. And yet, one of the tendencies that can really frustrate CEOs is when boards get into the weeds on operational matters, making staff's contributions seem redundant or unappreciated.

Addressing these challenges brings us back to the importance of partnership, which cannot exist without trust.  Boards feeling a lack of trust between the governing body and CEO should consider turning to the board's self-assessment and the CEO's assessment to identify areas of disconnect and possible misunderstanding. Strong board governance committees and experienced board chairs can also be important leaders in establishing board operating policies that are rooted in a reasonable interpretation of the board's role and mindful of the CEO's jurisdiction.

Overall, maintaining an effective mental model that instills a clear image of board/staff roles and responsibilities can help nonprofit leaders establish a functional governance system. Basing this system on a common understanding of how best to work together is key to ensuring organizational health and productivity.  So, when in doubt, think of the bicycle... or the viking ship... or think of another metaphor that makes you say "oh, I got it!"


Rachel Miller-Bleich, MA, CAE, a nonprofit governance consultant, is Principal and Owner of MillerBleich Consulting, LLC. Learn more at www.millerbleichconsulting.com 


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