Managing a not-for profit association sure isn’t easy. As we’ve seen, a good board helps.
You’ll need an effective Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and a committed group of professional staff too. But even with those things in place, there are plenty of things that can go wrong that will prevent an organization from maximizing its potential. The most fatal is a lack of understanding by either the board or members of staff (or, horror of horrors, both!) about what their roles are.
Sandi L. Humphrey, CAE and Donald Evans have some excellent advice on this in their Guide to Positive Staff-Board Relations for Directors of Non-Profit Organizations – a monograph published by the Canadian Society of Association Executives. Their key message is that “boards must focus on what the organization is to accomplish, while staff focuses on how those objectives will be achieved.”
In organizations where this doesn’t happen, you’ll often find board members messing around with operational details – approving day-to-day expenses, getting involved in HR processes, or concerning themselves with minor edits to web content. The result? Board members either feel overwhelmed with minor tasks or bored by the lack of strategic vision in their work. For staff, the result is frustration that they can’t be trusted to do their jobs and that every little thing has to be monitored.
Humphrey and Evans are at pains to point out that “operating not-for-profit organizations without the benefit of defined board and staff roles is the single-largest contributor to unhealthy staff-board relationships.” They suggest:
- Ensuring the board has good information about the benefits of effective governance
- Providing a professional development budget for the board and encouraging board members to attend governance-related workshops
- Finding a champion among the board members to lead the drive for improved governance (this should not be the CEO, who would run the risk of being accused of seeking too much power and influence)
- Budgeting the time and resources necessary to implement a governance model that defines the separate and distinct roles of the board and the CEO
- Establishing a governance committee to help the board enhance its governance capacity
As ever, the suggestions above will require time and money. But trust me – the investment will make your not-for-profit association much more effective at achieving its mission, so it’s well worth it in the long run.
Once everybody is clear on their roles, you’ll avoid duplication of work and allow for a healthy and supportive relationship to develop between the CEO and the board. This relationship is perhaps the most important in any organization. It should be nurtured with open and honest communication and an understanding of what information each party needs from the other and when. Over time, CEOs and board members can build a level of trust and mutual respect that allows each to operate to the best of their abilities and help enhance the effectiveness of the organization long into the future.