Musings on the Executive Director-Board Partnership by Beth Blanchard Schaffer, Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultant

We’re pleased to bring you this guest blog post from Beth Blanchard Schaffer. Beth is a Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultant and will be a featured panelist at special Standards for Excellence Forum, being hosted by Maryland Nonprofits in Baltimore, MD on May 28, 2014. Beth and fellow panelists, Susan Fort and Vernetta Walker (BoardSource) will tackle a host of governance related issues that are new benchmarks in the Standards for Excellence version 2.0. Click here to register to attend this program. For more information on the Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultant Program or to request an application, click here:

Musings on the ED-Board Partnership

I’ve been thinking lately about the unique, powerful, frustrating, and wondrous relationship between an executive director and the board s/he works with. We call it a partnership and we always strive for that. What’s unique? Nowhere in business or government is there a parallel. An observer new to the sector might ask, “Let me get this straight: you have a professional, highly trained and credentialed staff who report to a group of community and business volunteers who each bring a different perspective, set of skills and personal interests to the game?!? How can that work?”

What’s powerful? When those volunteers “get it”, i.e., they internalize the mission of the organization AND their responsibilities, they free staff to create the healthiest most nimble organization possible. When staff does an effective job of recruiting, orienting and supporting a diverse board, they unleash a force that staff alone cannot generate. And when board members not only assume their legal and fiduciary roles but they also generate winning strategies – winning things they can do – that add value to the organization. Since they serve as the organization’s ambassadors to the community at large, board members’ words and actions can carry enormous weight in heightening a positive profile and reputation with all audiences. Indeed, the most effective pitch for investments in a nonprofit will come from its volunteer leadership – in concert with staff leaders of course but front and center nonetheless.

Why frustrating? Because equipping volunteers to lead effectively can be challenging. Their externality positions them to be acting in the public interest, not their own. But it also guarantees the language and culture of the organization initially are foreign to them. And staff members are typically immersed in day-to-day and month-to-month goals and objectives with an inward-focused perspective. And there is an inevitable tension between both partners’ desire to engage and involve board members in the organization on one hand and the need to keep directors’ sights set on the horizon – not on near-term operational questions and issues on the other.

What’s wondrous? When an organization’s ED and board are in synch and each contributes their best to create the most effective organization, you can move mountains. And when they are not working in partnership, no amount of money or other resources are enough to sustain a healthy, nimble organization. How often do we achieve “wondrous”? One case in three? Or perhaps we should say more years than not, because the care and feeding of a good partnership can go better at some times in the evolution of an organization than others.

This is an excellent time for the Standards for Excellence to give greater emphasis to the responsibilities that are shared by board and staff members. I look forward to exploring and encouraging how organizations can make this really work.


About Amy Coates Madsen

Amy Coates Madsen serves as the Program Director of the Standards for Excellence Institute.
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