Who's Responsible for the Board of Directors Anyway?

by Maggie Clay Love

It’s a simple question: who is responsible for the Board of Directors of a nonprofit organization? For small-to-mid-sized organizations, however, it can be a tough question to answer. For these grassroots nonprofits, the lines of responsibility between Board and staff are often unclear as each take on multiple roles in an effort to institute organizational functioning, stretch programmatic dollars, and establish their organization in the community. Often, each staff member does the work of two, so everybody addresses and licks their own envelopes, and its leader is an Executive Director, not a CEO. There’s no national “umbrella” organization to provide direction and resources; no endowment to provide base funding for operations; no career path for its employees. Being on the Board of Directors is more a labor of love rather than a resume item.

For most nonprofit organizations, the Board of Directors is responsible for hiring and managing the Executive Director (ED), and the ED is responsible for hiring and managing the staff. The Board provides organizational oversight and makes policy decisions, and approves big changes in programs, activities and partnerships, while the ED is held responsible for establishing procedures and successfully implementing the organization’s programs. Add to that an often paradoxical relationship between the ED and the Board: the more the ED is involved with and does for the Board, the more stagnant and ineffective the Board becomes. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if the Board is managing the ED, or the ED is managing the Board. So, who is ultimately responsible for the “care and feeding” of the Board of Directors anyway?

The technical answer is the Board itself.

But how does that typically play out in reality? After all, there is a lot of work that someone has to do to keep the Board of Directors active and healthy… and they are volunteers…

So, let’s consider a secondary question… who is responsible for the organization’s successes or failures in the eyes of the community?

The reality answer is, most likely, the Executive Director of the organization.

And that leads us to the Executive Director dilemma: when it’s just not possible to squeeze one more hour in the day, and you have to choose between getting your hands in programmatic activities or nudging the Board, what’s the best time investment to make?

Answer: develop a regular coaching plan and communications checklist for the Board so they become an active arm of the organization that has a measurable impact on success, and directly supports the programmatic work of the staff and the external awareness activities of the organization.

Nonprofit organizations and their Boards of Directors are each unique…but there is usually one commonality: the mission of the organization cannot be accomplished by paid staff alone. Volunteers are necessary to supplement and support the work of the staff, and to be successful, volunteers must be trained and given the tools to do the job. So, while the Board by definition is a policy-making entity, don’t overlook them as your organization’s most committed volunteers! Invest in putting a plan in place to coach your Board to become a positive influence on your staff and your mission.

Creating a simple communication checklist with your Board and staff is a great place to start! With your Board President, make a checklist of regular tasks that clarify and enhance communication so both Board members and staff know their involvement and expectations, and Board members who miss meetings don’t fall behind. (This will also help define the Board-staff partnership.) There is a natural rhythm to these communications based on your organization’s regular activities, strategic plan or business plan, annual goals, staffing, Board structure… all the things that make your organization unique. Start with the annual calendar of activities for your Board and organization, then layer on administrative tasks like reminders of meetings, follow up from meetings, monthly goals, and so on. Clearly identify who will be responsible for each with deadlines. For example, the ED assigns a staff person the responsibility of sending out meeting reminders prior to each Board meeting (eliminates confusion while engaging staff and Board); each staff is assigned a Board meeting to share a program summary and activities update with the Board (keeps Board updated); the Board Secretary gathers handouts from meetings to send to those who were absent (reinforces involvement); and so on. These checklists should be active, evolving documents, so be sure to include a footer that can identify its owner and most current revision, then plan to share them on a regular basis. The key is that everyone is empowered and expected to use these as guides.

The communication checklist is just one example of many simple yet valuable tools that can increase the involvement and effectiveness of the Board, and can be used separately or as part of the Executive Director’s Board coaching plan. Successfully implemented, both Board and staff will understand that each has a role that complements the other, which moves your organization closer to accomplishing its mission!

Bottom Line: The Executive Director is the only person in the mid-sized nonprofit organization who has one foot with the Board of Directors and the other with the staff. While bylaws usually stipulate the Board is responsible for the organization’s fiscal health and programmatic effectiveness, it’s the ED who translates mission into action and assumes ultimate responsibility. The ED’s time spent on regular coaching of the Board to be an active and effective arm of the organization – rather than doing the Board’s work for them – is usually a time investment that pays off handsomely in the long run!

Maggie Clay Love is an independent, licensed development consultant in Raleigh, NC, with 20-plus years in fundraising and nonprofit management. She specializes in organizational and board development, fundraising strategies and philanthropic partnerships, corporate campaigns, and grant writing. Maggie can be reached at maggie@maggieclaylove.com or 919.845.2770.

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