What are the most productive types of relationships between board & staff?
By: Eugene Fram
In the 21st century, building transparency and trust are two critical elements for good governance. In nonprofit organizations, these elements take on additional importance because organizationally staff members may only be or two levels below the board. Consequently, nonprofit staffs are probably more attuned to board changes and directives than their counterparts in a business setting. With more frequent rotations of nonprofit board members, many staff members can feel insecure. They have observed some nonprofits at which new board members sometimes can quickly bring about detrimental changes–it is not unusual for community boards to limit vetting new board members to friends and family.
The relationships between the two groups can be productive both formally informally and formally. Many executive directors fear staff developing informal relations with board members because they anticipate these relationships can lead to some staff personnel making an “end-run” to directors when they are dissatisfied with an executive’s decision. This is a frequent condition in tightly knit communities where for example, a staff member and board member have children attending the same day school. Board members need to fully understand they must ready to share any negative information with the CEO, if this occurs. However, the informal relationship can have a highly positive side because the staff can better understand the board’s commitment to the nonprofit’s mission, vision and values.
Informally, board members need to attend celebrations of organization successes in order to show appreciation what the staff has accomplished. While the CEO must be the nexus of communications between the two groups, it should not be unusual for board members to meet informally with senior staff members. Again the CEO needs to be brought into the communications loop, the only exception is when CEO or senior management malfeasance may be involved. To make certain that this type of information reaches the board, many nonprofits keep a “whistle-blower” systems in place
More staff knowledge is crucial for major decisions, and staff members need to interact with board groups in conducting major program reviews. This formal input is especially critical when a strategic plan is being revised or considered. The CEO needs to strive to create an atmosphere in which staff members feel free to express opinions in these reviews. Policy and strategic suggestions need to flow upward as well as downward from the board and senior management.
When confronted with a particularly difficult issue, an excellent means of communication is a board/staff workshop. Such a workshop brings board and staff members together in a more relaxed setting, if a good moderator is involved. The interaction between the two groups enhances the quality of decision-making. There are also secondary benefits, as a workshop enhances professional communications between board and staff and engages board members in meaningful hand-on projects, a requirement for retaining high quality directors.