In my most recent book, “The Little Book of Boards: A Board Member’s Handbook for Small (and Very Small) Nonprofits,” I spend a good deal of time talking about how the board and its officers should interact with the Executive Director.
What I want to talk about now is the reverse of that: how an Executive Director should work for a board. From my own personal experience, here are some tips that I hope will help you navigate what can feel like tricky waters.
1. Let the board govern itself.
Sometimes it can be tempting to meddle in board business, but you should stay out of it. If you don’t like the new president-elect, tough. Stay out of the election.
If you think the board needs term limits, you are the last person they want to hear that from.
Instead of pushing for possibly controversial policies, you would do better to focus your energy on creating the safe space for those policies to arise from the board itself. Refer your president or your executive committee to resources like this site, 501commons.org, boardsource.org, or other resources for nonprofit boards. You can probably encourage your leadership to have facilitated retreats or a governance committee and to carve time out of their monthly agenda for board development. But as to the specifics of what they do, you’re going to have to leave it to them.
(That said, you can play a role in keeping a board on task and committed. If the board creates a governance committee, but it hasn’t met in a few months, go ahead and email the chair and ask when the date of the next meeting is “because you’re trying to plan your schedule.” If the board has committed to strategic planning, you can remind the president it should be on the agenda. These gentle nudges can add up in a very positive way.)
2. Attend as many committee meetings as you can.
The work of the board really happens at committee meetings. Attending them and listening is very useful. As the ED, you can keep committees from working at cross purposes and be an information liaison. You can also accept work assignments. I think it’s important to “staff” these meetings. Take down tasks and then bring back the results of your work at the next meeting. You should be an essential (but perhaps unofficial) member of the committee.
It can be problematic to have a committee meet without you present and discover that they’ve assigned work to you or otherwise started a direction that is not feasible for whatever reason.
3. When in doubt, refer ideas back to the board’s committees.
One of the most frustrating challenges to deal with as an Executive Director is when a board member calls you up or emails you with their “suggestions.” Even good ideas that come to you this way can be hard to manage, because you may not have the budget or time to implement them. It can be awkward to tell a board member (who happens to make decisions about your employment status) that his or her idea is not workable. Some board members are fine hearing that, but others may think of you as “their” employee and they get disgruntled when you don’t take their advice or ideas and implement them immediately.
How best to handle that situation?
My recommendation is to always refer these ideas and suggestions back to the board level. For example:
“Interesting idea! Why don’t you bring the idea to the next marketing committee and see what they think?”
This relieves you of the idea to be the “bad guy” who kills a board member’s idea.
You can also refer a board member in these situations to the documents that the board itself passed. The board passed a budget. The board passed a strategic plan. The board passed policies. If the idea being pitched is not budgeted for, if it doesn’t fit within the strategic plan, or if implementing it would break a policy, it’s fine to point that out. For example:
“The budget the board gave me to work with won’t allow that this year. But why don’t we work with the finance committee to see if we can make it work for the next fiscal calendar?”
“It’s an intriguing idea. But the strategic plan the board passed says that we should be moving away from a model like what you’re suggesting. Maybe the board should look at your idea and weigh it against their plan.”
This puts the burden of follow-up on the board member, which is where it should be. You do work for every board member, but each board member is not your direct supervisor, if that distinction makes sense. When a board member approaches you with ideas out of committees or the board meeting, your best bet is to do whatever you can to redirect them back into the board and committee structure and let the board deal with those ideas itself.
4. Board members are board members first.
I know an executive director who was really struggling with his board, the board’s leadership, and the general direction of the nonprofit. He voiced his frustrations and grievances to a board member (who was also his friend).
A few days later, that board member took those concerns to the leadership of the board. The leadership didn’t like being questioned and fired the executive director.
When questioned, the board member told the executive director that he felt it was his duty to relay the ED’s feelings to the full board.
This is an extreme example, but it should be clear. Board members who are your friends are still board members first. Imagine that they are in a club. Anything you confide in a board member, or complain about, has a strong likelihood of getting out into the open.
If you are frustrated or angry or at all upset with your board, don’t unload it onto a board member, even if that board member is also your friend.
The one board member you should be able to open up to about any frustrations you have is the board president. But if, for whatever reason, the trust isn’t there to do this, then I would strongly recommend that you keep a professional face on all relationships you have with board members.
5. Never surprise your board president at a meeting.
I believe that you should do whatever you can to cultivate a good relationship with your board president. Weekly breakfast meetings, regular chats, and more. This relationship is, in many ways, the hinge that the nonprofit relies on. The two of you can disagree, and you can argue in private. But do everything you can not to surprise the board president in public.
I’ve done it. Through omission, forgetfulness, or just because I thought I had a problem handled that in retrospect I clearly did not. Whatever the reason, it’s awkward when it happens. Do you best to avoid it.
6. NEVER fudge the numbers.
This might be assumed, but it’s worth being 100% clear about. If things are hard for a few months, you might be tempted to portray the numbers in a way that is … misleading. Not even dishonest. Just … misleading.
Do it a few times and you might find yourself sliding from presenting numbers that are misleading to numbers that are outright lies. A treasurer with any financial background will start to smell that the books are being cooked.
The coverup is far worse than having a loss on the books.
The numbers are the numbers. Present them honestly no matter what they say.
7. Assume leadership.
You are in charge of the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit. Act like it. If it’s within budget, policies, and the strategic plan, it’s your decision to make—not the board’s.
Yes, some decisions are delicate enough or political enough that it behooves you to get input from the board or a committee before you go ahead. But a board will always step in if you invite it to, so take care on when you do this.
For the sake of keeping momentum of the nonprofit up, you’re going to have to do what you were hired to do: lead the operations of the nonprofit. Sometimes it might mean that you have to ask for forgiveness, or accept a reprimand. But generally speaking, you need to be willing to step out and do your job. If you keep running every single decision by the board, the nonprofit won’t be able to move forward. There will be too many cooks in the kitchen.
8. Identify possible new board members.
In the course of your work, you will run across dedicated volunteers, generous donors, and community leaders who might make ideal candidates for the board. If you work well with them, if you see them work well in a group setting, then go ahead and ask them if they’ve ever considering standing for nomination. Tell them about the nonprofit and the work you do. If they are interested, refer them to the board during the nominations process.
Don’t put your thumb on the scale after that. You are in a great position to see candidates that the board never would have seen. Refer them on. Just identifying good quality candidates is a good start to make sure that over the long run, you have quality prospects to fill seats on the board.
9. Submit a written monthly report.
What did you do this month? Write it down and send it to the board as part of the board packet (which likely also includes minutes, finances, agenda, and drafts of policy.)
I wrote a monthly report that included three to five big things that I wanted the board to know (and that I wanted them to know I worked hard on) and then included a list of “other tasks and accomplishments” for the month. I kept it to one to two pages and then covered some highlights or added any updates at the meeting itself.
Remember, board members don’t see you day in and day out. Most of what they know of your performance is what they see at board and committee meetings. It’s important to keep them in the loop on what you actually do.
10. Do the work.
Hopefully, you are the ED of a nonprofit because you are committed to the work that they do. Whatever is going on with the board, you need to keep your focus on the work.
This implies a trust in the board… but even more than that it requires that you give up some amount of control. Trying to control everything just doesn’t work. Come to meetings prepared, and support the board in their work. But don’t get sucked too far into board politics or drama. Your employees, your volunteers, and your community is expecting you to do good things. Do the work, and trust the board to do theirs.
11. Help your board help themselves.
Here’s a bonus tip. You can download a free preview of “The Little Book of Boards” to see if this is the right resource to help your board continue to improve. This is a special preview of the book that I created just for executive directors to see the key messages I give boards about their responsibilities and duties to the organization and the board. Please check it out and if you like it, I hope you will consider referring it your board president. A lot of boards of small nonprofits can use a little help with governance and a resource like this—that is tailored exactly for a small nonprofit board—could be ideal for your organization.