How to Clarify Board and Staff Roles with an Invisible Yellow Line

Denise McMahan is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub, and is the founder and publisher of where nonprofit leaders devour Page to Practice™ book summaries, author interviews and sticky applications from the must-read books they recommend.

If there was one universal nonprofit rulebook that contained a set of defining roles for board and staff, we could avoid an incredible amount of miscommunication and angst over getting things done at the leadership level.

The fact is, it doesn’t exist because things change, asserts author Jean Block. She adds that organizations and people evolve. Block has written The Invisible Yellow Line to provide a way for board and staff leaders to communicate about their roles and “reduce the trap of assumptions and defensiveness.”

Is Your Organization Thriving or Diving?

Board leadership is an area that demands much of our attention and effort due to its critical role in helping an organization thrive or dive. Block has taken the literature on this topic one step further.

Block recognizes that a lack of clarity among roles between board and staff members is one of the most common reasons for conflict and inefficiency at the leadership level. She provides leadership guidance in the areas of governance, management, operations and development, as well as the key responsibilities where most gray areas (or what Block calls “Invisible Yellow Lines”) exist.

How To Get Started with Using The Invisible Yellow Line

At Cause Planet, we asked Block about how to get started with her model:

CP: The list of key responsibilities at the end of each core chapter (worksheet) is very helpful for generating conversation about the many “Invisible Yellow Lines” that may arise as board and staff work together. How did you create these lists?

JB: Practice, practice, practice and on-the-job experience as both a board leader and staff leader. These are the kinds of things that apply to most nonprofits and create a stepping-off place for discussion as to how you might handle them in your particular organization. I mean for these discussions to be ongoing because as organizations change and the people running them change, the roles might change.

CP: You state the obvious in the beginning of the book when you emphasize how communication is essential to manage the inevitable “Invisible Yellow Lines.” Yet knowing this fact still doesn’t always help boards and staffs work together. What’s the best way organizations can start and keep the communication going?

JB: Obviously, when things go wrong, fingers start to point and often there is no good way to get back on track without feeling defensive. I have seen organizations that have adopted the Yellow Line terminology as a way to communicate without pointing. In fact, using the Yellow Line can even be an icebreaker in tense situations.

CP: Is there an area of leadership (governance, management, operations or development) where organizations should start defining responsibilities or do you recommend a different beginning for nonprofits looking to avoid conflict at the Invisible Yellow Line?

JB: I think the answer to this question has to be defined by the organization. For some, defining governance versus management responsibilities is difficult. This is especially true in situations where the board has to transition from a “working board” status to a governing and policy-making board. For others, defining resource development is a critical issue. And let’s remember, these roles are likely to change with changes in staff and volunteer leadership as well as changes in an organization’s focus, maturity, etc.


Denise McMahan

Denise McMahan is a guest contributor for Nonprofit Hub, and is the founder and publisher of Cause Planet, where nonprofit leaders devour Page to Practice™ book summaries, author interviews and sticky applications from the must-read books they recommend.

June 10, 2015

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