Home > Articles > Four Steps to a Better Board, Part 4: Support Working Relationships

Four Steps to a Better Board, Part 4: Support Working Relationships

Take the final step toward a high-performance board with part four of our Better Board primer, from GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group team. In this step learn how to build your working relationships by defining your workflow, establishing healthy communication habits, and encouraging some “constructive meddling.”

GCN's approach to board development follows four steps:

1. Determine the focus of the board
2. Establish the board’s organization structure
3. Secure needed board member resources
4. Support working relationships among board members & key staff

In this fourth and final article, we’ll focus on supporting working relationships, both within the board and between the board and the executive director.

To develop good working relationships, you’ll first need to address issues of structure and process. The structural aspects with the greatest impact on working relationships are:

  • Definition of leadership roles for board members and the
    executive director
  • Performance expectations for the organization, board, and
    executive director
  • Governance committee responsibilities
  • Annual board and board member assessments
  • Annual executive director performance review

To establish leadership roles for the board and the executive director, you’ll need clarity regarding authority (who makes which decisions), responsibility (where each leader spends the most time), and relationships (who acts as primary contact for whom). These roles establish the rules of engagement and provide clear, consistent expectations. Understanding one’s individual domain is critical to a functioning organization.

Without attention to and development of the working relationships among leaders, even the best-crafted board will yield subpar performance and lackluster impact.

In addition, it’s also imperative to agree on distinct performance expectations for the executive director, the organization as a whole, and the board. Though the importance of executive director and nonprofit goals are generally understood, it’s just as important to give the board its own set of goals that support the nonprofit, and to which it can be held accountable.

These expectations form the basis for two very important annual evaluation processes: board and board member assessments, and the executive director performance review. The board assessment should address attendance and performance issues, overall governance performance results, and individual governance processes such as meetings, committee work, communication, and decision making. The executive director review should address both accomplishments (goals met) and behavior expectations (how they were met) in order to reinforce good performance and correct for future performance expectations.

Depending on the board’s established structure, it should assign responsibility for board assessments—in goal accomplishment, role execution, member contribution, system processes—to a governance committee or to the executive committee. The key is to establish a place where these assessments are assigned and conducted. If the board is to continue to develop itself as a governing body, board assessment should be conducted annually (or at least every other year).

Three Keys for Effective Relationships

While structure makes the rules of engagement clear and consistent, quality relationships are built and maintained through honest, constructive communication. In fact, structural deficiencies can often be overcome with common vision, trust, and good will. Three keys for effective relationships among board members and between board and executive director are:

  • Honoring the “zone of accommodation”
  • “Constructive meddling” by the board
  • Focusing attention on process issues, not just task or goal issues

The “zone of accommodation” is the overlap between the board and executive director in terms of governance and management/execution roles. Because this overlap is, by its nature, hard to define and constantly changing, it needs to remain flexible in the face of ongoing and emerging challenges. Structure, in the form of clear roles, establishes a starting point for working together; the “zone” provides room for adaptation where that structure doesn’t apply: when a question over authority comes up, responsibility can be negotiated by acknowledging and respecting the “zone.“

Your community needs a leadership team that works well together; you can get there with a little structure and care.

Board members can’t negotiate, however, if they don’t understand what the nonprofit does in a practical, ground-up way. The best way for them to learn what the nonprofit does and how to get involved is through “constructive meddling”: taking tours, surveying programs, volunteering, and asking questions. To keep things constructive, meddling mustn’t undermine the authority of the executive director or staff, or create confusion as to who is in charge of day-to-day operations. This also helps board members understand and act on the distinction between their governance role (in which the executive director is accountable to them) and their volunteer role (in which board members work for the executive director and her management staff).

Finally, paying attention to process issues—how power is exercised, how decisions are made, how people are kept informed, how differences are resolved, how meetings are conducted—is also essential to effective relationships. Creating dialogue about and expressing appreciation for each person’s efforts undergirds the long-term sustainability of these relationships.

Without attention to and development of the working relationships among leaders, even the best-crafted board will yield subpar performance and lackluster impact. Your community needs a leadership team that works well together; happily, you can get there from here with a little structure and care.

Working with a diverse group of organizations, GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group team is uniquely positioned to help nonprofit and philanthropic leaders build strong organizations that accelerate growth and social impact through a broad range of projects that help build capacity, navigate change, and maximize impact. Learn more at GCN.org/Nonprofit-Consulting-Group and contact us at [email protected]

Subscribe to GCN Articles RSS