How to Build a Better Board and Staff Relationship

This article was originally published in our Nonprofit Hub Magazine, a bi-monthly publication that features content from the best in the nonprofit industry. Sign up to get your free subscription today.

________________________

Busy is a term we’ve come to embrace in our society and have even glorified the meaning.

You’re busy. I’m busy. We’re all busy.

So naturally, your organization’s board chair and CEO are, no doubt, busy. But there’s one thing that simply can’t be put on the backburner if you want your organization to run more effectively—the relationship between your nonprofit board chair and your organization’s CEO.

John Fulwider is the author of Better Together: How Top Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs Get Happy, Fall in Love and Change Their World.

Why is it that we struggle to get our boards and staff on the same page?

“I think they struggle with it for at least a couple of reasons—one is that they don’t fully understand the power of a great leadership-board partnership,” Fulwider said. “The other is that they don’t invest time into the partnership.”

He says it’s vital that the board chair and nonprofit CEO (or the equivalent) start with a commitment to communication, because everything your organization achieves starts with the board-CEO partnership. That means carving time out each and every week, and then sticking to those meetings unfailingly.

Before the complaining or the excuses ensue, know that it doesn’t have to be a particularly long meeting. In fact, Fulwider suggests anywhere from as little as 15 minutes to meet each week, and up to 60 minutes. By making that weekly commitment and forming good habits, the organization will start to see improvements.

Fulwider related forming those good habits to other successful ventures at nonprofit organizations, like fundraising.

“A person who is a great fundraiser on behalf of their organization is probably that way because she has a habit of making multiple calls to carefully targeted donors, then following up specifically with them,” Fulwider said. “And that’s a habit.”

In order to start forming those habits, there are some areas your organization should focus on. He talked about three keys to strong board communication that are easy to understand, yet hard to put into practice.

  1. Build Transparency and Trust
    This won’t happen overnight. Remember, every relationship starts somewhere. Be open and honest about your roles with one another.
  1. Set Clear Expectations
    Never assume. When expectations are clear, it’s easier to hold each other accountable.
  1. Plan Frequent Communication
    This comes back to meeting at least once per week, and not breaking that commitment.

“Some board members and some chief executives are always complaining about how board meetings are too tactical… not strategic enough,” Fulwider said.

Not sure exactly what you’d talk about each time? No worries, says Fulwider. You can develop a strategic thinking calendar that outlines conversation topics to discuss. In his book, he outlines topics on people, programs and processes.

These are a few random samples from Fulwider’s book that you could use to start conversations:

  1. When each of us tells average people what our organization does, what do we say?
  2. How should we change/expand/contract our vision, if at all?
  3. What are the board’s expectations of the CEO, and vice versa?
  4. What does the board chair think of the CEO’s performance, and vice versa?
  5. What products and services do we want to provide one year from now? Three? Five?

So what should you do if all of this is new to you? If your organization has never formally established a communication structure for the board and staff chair, it all comes down to open dialogue.

“Talk to your board chair and ask her for her ideas on how you can develop your board and staff in the new year,” Fulwider said.

And if you want the partnership to be successful, Fulwider says there needs to be an intrinsic motivation. If you’re meeting and working on the relationship simply because somebody else says it’s important, the relationship will fail from the start.

When it comes down to it, everybody gets the same amount of hours in a week. And Fulwider says it’s how your organization is using those hours that makes a difference.

“When you invest time in something meaningful, it makes other uses of time easier,” he said.