In my long and meandering pathway of a career, I’ve been a nonprofit board chair several times, and an executive director twice. I’ve seen the relationship from both perspectives, and it can be a beautiful thing.
It can also be a living nightmare.
When the new board-ED relationship begins, it is almost always a honeymoon of sorts. That’s because the board has proposed to the ED and the ED has accepted.
Sure, the ED might have had other suitors, but for some set of factors — better pay, a step up in size or reputation, or in some instances, a rebound from a poor situation — the ED has chosen to accept the board’s proposal.
So everyone is at least reasonably happy. Even the most rational of romances is done for some reason that fulfills a common need.
But early enamorment doesn’t guarantee longterm bliss. And there are a whole lot of ways that the board and ED can fall out of love.
One of the most common is that boards and their leaders change. An ED might be hired with one chair at the helm and a particular assortment of board or hiring committee members that find the ED’s skills, personality and vision to be particularly striking.
But then there arrives on the scene a new pharaoh who knew not Joseph. The new leader, executive committee and board might not see the ED the same way. Think of it like waking up next to your spouse and wondering, “Who IS this?” It happens, as we know.
Another common scenario is that the needs of the nonprofit, from a market, mission or other perspective, changes, and the board no longer believes the leader is up to the task at hand. Leadership is so often contextual, and a changed context can stimulate a desire for changed staff leadership.
A third way that things evolve is if a board decides it wants to get more integrally involved in the operations of the organization. A micromanaging board is a very common way for the balance of the relationship to change, and often times not for the better.
The relationship can change from the ED’s side as well. Arrogance, complacency, inability to cope with change, personal issues and more can result in an ED no longer fulfilling his or her role, either temporarily or permanently.
The true concern isn’t that things change; things ALWAYS change. The question is how each side copes with the change. Often times, communications become stilted; interpersonal exchanges can turn harsh; board members try to go around the ED or the opposite, the ED starts cherry picking which directors to bond with. Coalitions for and against each other form, matters get out of hand, things break down.
In so many instances, by the time that the problem is both recognized and acknowledged, it’s too late. The differences are irreconcilable, they’ve often crept into staff morale, and there’s no other way out than through an ED or, less commonly, a board leadership change.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are plenty of arrows in the relationship quiver to address the evolving nature of board-ED partnerships, and in most cases, with a capable and qualified ED, and a wise and experienced board, things can be put aright before the bell strikes midnight and the carriage becomes a pumpkin.
In future installments, we’ll talk about how these circumstances come to be, how they can be addressed, and in most cases, can be fixed to the satisfaction of all involved, and in ways that lead to the longterm well-being of both people and the nonprofit itself.