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NOVEMBER 2017


Susan J. RagusaWelcome! The temperature may have dipped but with Thanksgiving just a week away, the holiday giving period is heating up. A smooth-running nonprofit supports successful fundraising — and every other kind of activity. One key measure of an organization’s health is the cooperation between the board and executive director.  
 
This roundup is the third of a series on “breaking the crisis mentality” in nonprofit behavior. Discord at the leadership level has serious consequences. Ignoring problems or hoping they’ll be solved somehow are reactions that lead to crisis. These resources provide guidance for developing durable executive-board relationships and for avoiding — or quickly addressing — issues that can lead to trouble.
 


Breaking the Crisis Mentality: Board and Executive Director Relationships
  

1. Getting Off to a Good Start: Advice from Case Studies
What helps an executive director and board to work together on solid ground? This article from The Bridgespan Group offers advice backed by examples from organizations that make it a priority to get their leadership relationships right from the start. Insights come from both nonprofit board chairs and chief executives. If your nonprofit is expecting a leadership change soon, this piece is must reading. Yet even if your top spots are stable, some strategies are applicable anytime, such as one from an executive director who emphasizes face-to-face/voice-to-voice communication over email with the board.
 
2.  Responsibilities and Relationships 101: What’s Governance vs. Support  
Jan Masaoka, one of my favorite nonprofit thinkers, presents a useful primer on board responsibilities in the key areas of governance and support. What makes this Blue Avocado piece appropriate for a discussion on dodging board-executive turmoil are clear examples of the difference between the board acting as a body and as individual members. Take this one: a board tells the executive director to repaint the office. It’s only a suggestion unless the board votes that the office be repainted. Consider how those distinctions of authority can be lost and why clarifying for all can head off problems or serve up solutions.

3. Trust as the Key Link in Executive-Board Partnerships
This Nonprofit Quarterly reprint takes a different perspective, based on interviews, in 2005, with board chairs and executive directors from 18 Silicon Valley nonprofits. Their consensus: It’s not clear roles that matter as much in promoting strong partnerships, it’s trust. The NP article by Mary L. Hiland first appeared in Winter 2006. Granted, there could be a times-can-change argument about the conclusions. Still, I’m a big believer that trust is critical in any relationship — including among board members — and building trust between an organization’s key leaders is simply beneficial to all.

4.  Thoughts on a Hot Button Issue for Executive Directors
Should board members have independent contact with staff? “For many executive directors, this issue raises blood pressure faster than almost any other,” warns another Blue Avocado piece by Jan Masaoka. In the preventing-conflict department, it’s a priority question to resolve. Masaoka recommends no restrictions that create suspicion and lead to clashes between board and executive director. Instead, she supplies guidelines for contact and conduct by board members and staff that involve the executive director, but also enable staff to report concerns to the board. Comments that this 2011 article has generated over time offer interesting views as well.

5. “Technical Assistance” for Nonprofits with Board-Executive Needs
I’m reassured by a promise of help with the nitty-gritty of making something work. Two featured blogs on The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation website — both by Laura Otten of The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University — carry the “TA” banner and deliver plenty of practical support. The first outlines how to maximize board-executive director relationships. A point I’d put in neon if I could: a call for nonprofits to pay attention to who fills the board president position, given the vital need to work well with the executive director. The second explains characteristics of a strong board-executive partnership and includes video guidance for evaluating and improving the relationship.
 
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Susan J. Ragusa is a nonprofit strategist with expertise in board/executive leadership and fundraising. She applies her early career experience in education through workshops, speaker and panel presentations. Susan is a go-to source of common-sense advice, problem-solving and resources for tackling organizational challenges. (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz)
Copyright © 2017 Susan J Ragusa, All rights reserved.


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