Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

How to Create a Great Partnership between Your Nonprofit Board and Executive Director

Board and Executive Director Partnership | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

While a great board is essential to your nonprofit organization's success, so is your board's relationship with your executive director. Both parties have different and complementary roles:

  • Board members dedicate their time, talent, and expertise to your organization's oversight.
  • The executive director executes plans and applies expertise to your organization's day-to-day tasks and management.

Your board should strive to be a valuable asset to the executive director. They can do this by lending brainpower and expertise to complex situations, and by working with your executive director to identify problems.

Create an Open Working Environment

A good board creates a forum for the executive director to think through issues in an open, non-judgmental environment. This kind of working environment allows for the regular exploration of ideas. A good working environment encourages:

  • Experimentation
  • Openness to change
  • New ways of seeing problems

In many cases, your board members will mentor your executive director. Your board can help the director see and analyze organizational problems and opportunities through different lenses. A good board leads by example and inspires members to be their best.

Foster Collaboration

Nonprofit expert Michelle Perrone provides some insights as a part of nonprofit leadership training seminars she offers through the Center for Nonprofit Advancement in Washington, D.C. She suggests that a good partnership between a board and an executive director has these four qualities:

  • Common expectations. Good relationships develop from a common understanding of everyone's roles and responsibilities – both staff and board members. All parties need to understand and measure success in the same way.
  • Cooperative planning. The board and staff must work together collaboratively on strategic, operational, and contingency planning efforts.
  • Shared evaluations. All components of an organization must be evaluated annually. These components include the board as a group, each individual board member, the executive director, and the organization's programs.
  • An effective relationship. The best partnerships grow from mutual respect, open and honest communication, and trust.

Cultivate a Partnership

All parties in your organization must actively cultivate an effective partnership. Your executive director must maintain a strong relationship with the board chair and help the chair do his or her job well. Your executive director should also strive to develop good one-on-one relationships with all the board members.

Your board also needs to support your executive director. All board communication must be direct and honest. Your board should communicate with the staff through the executive director to avoid conflicts and confusion.

Your chief staff members provide support for board committees or assign other staff as support. Your board should check in with your chief staff members before they speak publicly on behalf of the organization to ensure that a consistent message will be delivered.

Executive Director Actions

Your executive director can cultivate an effective partnership by taking the following actions:

  • Work actively with the board development or governance committee to identify new board members
  • Help the board govern by clearly articulating roles and preparing reports that help the board make the best decisions
  • Encourage the members and the board to complete self-assessments
  • Work with the chair to set meeting agendas
  • Be open and honest with the board, and model leadership and ideal communication
  • Constantly think about ways to improve the organization and share ideas, expectations, plans, and assessments with the board

Board Actions

Your board can cultivate an effective partnership by taking the following actions:

  • Evaluate the executive director fairly and inclusively, and make sure your organization's chief staff are never surprised or confused by an evaluation
  • Communicate problems with the executive director or directly with chief staff members
  • Understand the difference between governance and micromanagement, and delegate everyday tasks to staff
  • Respect the staff's workload and have reasonable expectations of staff members
  • Respond promptly to staff phone calls
  • Meet deadlines
  • Discuss ideas for organizational changes with the staff before talking to people outside your organization

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.

You can learn more about nonprofit operations from the Nonprofit Management Education Center offered by the Center for Community and Economic Development, which is part of the University of Wisconsin Division of Cooperative Extension. This resource includes a library of articles and an Organizational Assessment Tool.