The Executive Director v. the Board

July 6, 2011

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 3:55 pm

I’m often asked by Executive Directors to give advice as to the division of responsibilities between the staff and board.

Here’s my two cents.

The traditional view is the following:

The board:

  • Financial Due Diligence
  • Help with Fundraising
  • Strategic Direction
  • Hire/Fire/Evaluate the Executive Director
  • Board Recruitment
  • Facilitate its own meetings

The Executive Director:

  • Manage day to day finances
  • Lead Fundraising
  • Create a vision for the board’s use in setting strategic direction
  • Hire/Fire/Evaluate other staff and contractors
  • Develop programs and implement them (either directly or via other staff/contractors)

In the real world, I’ve rarely found the traditional scenario played out.  Almost always, the Executive Director must set the conditions necessary for the board to fulfill its role.

This includes:

  • Setting up systems that allow the board to exercise its financial due diligence, providing them financial statements on a monthly basis in an understandable format with appropriate analysis of how things are going.
  • Providing a clear structure for the board’s fundraising, through a combination of training, materials, ideas, and systems to ensure board members are operating efficiently and not duplicating each others’ efforts.
  • Providing ongoing information about the lay of the land and strategic options so that board decisions regarding the strategic direction of the organization aren’t set in a vacuum.  Almost always in my experience, boards can best provide strategic guidance when provided reasonable alternatives from which to choose rather than having open-ended dialogues.
  • Initiating their own evaluation, including a self-evaluations, and including establishment of personal goals that the board can use for its evaluation of the Executive Director.
  • Staffing the board recruitment process and participating in it or even leading it if necessary to ensure the board is at full strength over time.
  • Providing draft agendas for board chairs and leading the board meetings, even as the chair plays the official facilitator role.  This includes putting together good board packets and getting them out on a timely basis.

It sounds exhausting.  And it is.

But when it clicks — when the ED does one role and then the board plays its role — an organization can truly thrive.   When thinking about my long tenure as an ED, those moments when everything clicked were priceless.

Of course, the above begs the question of how things are different when an organization is small, just getting started, and not yet thriving. Almost always, this means the board must take on more responsibility in some areas and less in others.  I’ll write more about that in a separate blog post soon.

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