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The Board Chair and Executive Director Relationship

Nadia Prescott

As a general principle, the board of directors primarily governs and staff primarily manages the organization. For a nonprofit to be effective, regardless of size or lifecycle stage, there must be a good relationship between the Executive Director and the board chair.

If you are fortunate enough to be part of a medium or larger size nonprofit organization, this means that the board provides counsel to management. They should not be involved in the day-to-day affairs of the organization. On the other hand, if you heading an organization with limited staff, the Executive Director is going to need a more hands-on board (beyond just governance) to make sure the organizations runs smoothly and effectively.

A board’s ability to govern lies in its group structure. The board chair plays a key role in leading the board and setting the tone for all members to ensure a focus on mission, direction and priorities. In this respect, the Executive Director relies on the board chair in partnership to help him or her deliver on the organization’s mission.

The board chair has a significant influence on how the board uses its time. But it is highly likely that your board chair has a full-time job, and has little insight about the day-to-day issues that you deal with on a regular basis. It is the executive director’s job to provide these insight across the organization, and ensure the board chair is well informed.

An effective working relationship between the board chair and the Executive Director is critical. Trust, respect and a common understanding of the organization’s goals are key to making this relationship successful. A close collaboration between these two members of the organization is key to success.

The two of you will determine which are the most important issues for an agenda at each board meeting, and which topics need to be brought up to a board member outside of the meeting. The executive director also helps assemble the information that shapes this discussion, and makes sure the board chair can represent the organization well during meetings. Even though the Executive Director reports to the board, he or she is also partially responsible for the board being able to fulfill their governance role.