Fairmount InSights
Adela Smith

Not long ago, we asked the executive of a well-known, established nonprofit what she wanted from her board. “Get me a lot of money and stay out of the way,” she quipped. We both laughed

Nine months later she was fired.

A week doesn’t go by without Fairmount hearing about an executive director and board of directors butting heads. Sometimes a tricky issue that could have been resolved with some finessing blooms into a time-consuming exchange that leaves everyone feeling bruised. Other times, a deep-seated dispute leads to an existential threat to the executive’s job or the organization’s well-being, as in the example above. While Tolstoy may have been correct when he said that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, we see common traits among “unhappy” nonprofits. Some executive directors keep the board’s engagement at arm’s length for fear of interference with their authority. That can work until there is a problem that requires trust and collaborative problem-solving between the executive and the board.  

Seeing this all too often, we find it instructive to consider the elements of successful executive-board relationships. Here’s a case study to draw some inferences.

Nonprofit X is a longstanding adult education and workforce development organization serving a broad constituency throughout Philadelphia. It is largely publicly funded, but philanthropic support is critical to close gaps and provide needed service enhancements. For years, the board was largely complacent to attend meetings to hear reports from the CEO, who, in turn, had low expectations of the board. The board never challenged the CEO, nor were they engaged in solving problems, fundraising, or advocating for the organization. Recruiting high profile, high energy board members was challenging because people who could lead transformative change did not want to serve on a low energy board. When the CEO needed the board’s influence with external players, they did not feel sufficiently vested and rarely knew enough to be helpful.

Flash forward a few years: with a relatively new CEO in place and the long-term board chair retiring, there was a window to turn things around. What happened?

  • The CEO met one-on-one with each board member and, then, organized a series of informal dinners with small groups of board members to discuss a shared vision and get to know one another outside of formal meetings.
  • The Board used the newly articulated vision to actively recruit high-performing people to serve on the board.
  • Board and staff worked together to develop a fundraising plan through a process that modeled how the board should be engaged, e.g., leveraging their expertise and relationships, along with an honest discussion regarding how they would want to be involved.

Together, staff and board transformed a sleepy annual dinner that netted $50,000 into a premier event to showcase the organization. By the second year, 600 people attended, over $300,000 was raised, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as presenters spoke to how the organization changed their lives. Partner organizations and major donors took notice and are stepping up their support.

What are the teaching points?

  1. Executive directors need to make the first move: invest time to build trust relationships with board members if they expect the board to be fully engaged.
  2. Every board member brings something; find it.
  3. The executive and the board can stay in their respective lanes AND run side by side for greater results.
  4. Build trust and comfort on the little things when all is well, so that staff and board can work well together when there are big opportunities or problems.
  5. Resources flow from authentic engagement.

Need a strategy to improve your executive-board relationship?

We’d love to learn more and help.

Contact us at info@fairmountinc.com or 215.717.2299

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