Nonprofit Board/Staff Relationships: An Uncomfortable Partnership?

Nonprofit Board/Staff Relationships: An Uncomfortable Partnership?

By: Eugene Fram

I have always been of the opinion that nonprofit directors don’t give sufficient consideration to the relationships between the board and staff. The following passage reasserts the complexity of such relationships and why misunderstandings might occur on either side of the fence.

The (nonprofit) governance model is … confounded by the fact that the people with responsibility for oversight, resource generation, and the strategic direction are not the same people who show up every day to deliver the work that fulfills the nonprofit’s mission. …. More often than not, however, the nonprofit board is a bit ungainly and leaves board members and staff alike scratching their heads and wondering how they might fix things so it (the organization) does what it’s meant to do … The challenges are often the greatest for the boards of small to mid-sized nonprofits, where the lines between governance and management seem to be more easily blurred. *

Although most directors, in their own careers, have had similar work experiences they should have a better feel for generic staff concerns such as:

• Do the directors have a robust understanding of our mission? How competent is the board to judge our work? Are directors appointed on the basis of professional competency or political advantage? How well is the board recognized among our peers in the nonprofit environment?

• How well does the board understand the challenges we face daily?

• When a new CEO is about to be engaged, will staff concerns be considered?

• Nonprofit boards have more frequent director turnover than other types of boards. How secure is my position?

• In growing nonprofit organizations, will board mandated changes cause us to lose staff collegiality and/or interfere with the organization’s sense of caring?

What the board can do:

Since these two vital entities (board, staff) are parts in the nonprofit partnership engine, it is critical that the parts be well oiled so that the organization may smoothly move forward in meeting its mission. Board members should have a feel staff sensitivities expressed above. Here are a few insights on the subject:

• Respect and celebrate staff accomplishments, both individually and as a group.

• Meet with staff in small groups and on appropriate problem solving committee assignments.

• Develop interest and understanding of the work they do, the challenges the group may face. Encourage staff to provide BRIEF informational updates and/or reports at board meetings or online. On occasion, ask to attend their professional conferences.

• As much as possible, try to develop a collegial, not authoritarian, relationship with staff. They are well aware that the board has final authority.

• As suggested by Sarbanes-Oxley, establish a board procedure that encourages directors, on occasion, to interact with key staff persons below the management level.

Do your staff and board work together in harmony or in an uncomfortable or mistrusting manner? Take a moment to assess and, if necessary, take time to tune up the partnership. Your nonprofit will be the beneficiary!

*Ellen Cunniffe (2013)“When a Board Seat Becomes Uncomfortable,” NPQ Quarterly, July 22nd.


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