Boards & Governance

lizann peyton

As part of our continuing series on nonprofit effectiveness, Common Good Vermont asked Lizann Peyton to shed light on the importance of building board leadership. You can watch a complete recording of Managing Board Chair and Executive Director Relationships, here.

What is the biggest leadership challenge for nonprofits today?

I see two inter-related challenges:

  1. First: Finding good board members who have the time, understand the importance of sticking to governance, commit to follow-through, are eager to fundraise by talking to donors about what they love about the organization (not arm-twisting for money), spread good news about the organization in the community every chance they get, bring teamwork skills instead of personal agendas, and are willing to step up as committee and board chairs. Our communities have only a small pool to draw from in the first place, and there’s a lot of “recruitment fatigue” – both in asking, and being asked, to serve on a board.
  2. And as a result of this comes the second challenge: Finding good board chairs, when this quality probably wasn’t thought of at recruitment time and the job requires additional skills and temperament beyond the ordinary board member. We should think of at least 1/3 of our recruits as needing to have leadership time and willingness, or we won’t have a pool of leadership succession candidates.

Why is it essential for executive directors and board chairs to work closely together?

First of all, we need to take the burden off the executive directors’ shoulders to be the primary managers of board business. Too often, EDs have to take the lead in setting agendas, recruiting board members, keeping members engaged, ensuring follow-through, and reminding boards of their own jobs – including the all-too-often overlooked responsibility to give the ED an annual performance review. EDs have enough to do in their job without taking on the board’s job too, and they often rank “managing the board” as one of the major burn-out factors.

Second, strategic goals and board agendas address the interplay between governance and management. The board and staff each have different areas of responsibility, and failure to interconnect the two often prevents the organization from moving all in the same direction. Finally, the ED needs a safe place to air uncertainties and problem-solve without being judged by the whole board. The job of ED is a lonely one, and partnership with the other “co-leader” of the organization provides a huge source of support for EDs who often can’t share their uncertainties with staff. It’s also a safe place to discuss tensions that might arise regarding troublesome board members, board micromanagement, or difficulties in the board-staff relationship.

What long term impact will this partnership have on the organization?

I’ve seen accomplishment of strategic goals, board recruitment, and fundraising leap ahead when the chair and ED partner to move the agency forward together. Each can rally their respective sphere of influence to be its most productive, and in a coordinated way. Partnership helps the ED function at her or his highest level of productivity, makes board chairs feel more competent and effective, and keeps a balanced relationship between board and staff authority so energy can be directed toward strategic process rather than repeated conflict resolution. And it usually makes EDs and board members a lot more satisfied with their jobs!

Learn More