The Real Story of Nonprofit Partnerships -- Listening is Believing!

After many years of viewing both sides of the fence, via consulting assignments and board chair positions, I have observed verbal behaviors that clearly reveal how the two groups view each other.
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When the board and management talk about each other outside the boardroom, their remarks are often good indicators of the quality of their working partnership. After many years of viewing both sides of the fence, via consulting assignments and board chair positions, I have observed verbal behaviors that clearly reveal how the two groups view each other. These attitudes, which I regard as critical to the nature of the board/management relationship, also can be a keystone to mission success.

What Is Needed For A Strong Partnership

A reasonably clear division between policy/strategic responsibilities and operational responsibilities. There is a tendency among nonprofit board members to attempt to micromanage operational efforts. This sometimes begins during the start-up stage when intense involvement is required. When it persists, micromanagement can an easily become a default action long after it is needed. The board chair has a responsibility to alert his/her board colleagues if and when they have crossed the line.

Example: As a board chair, I found my board moving into a discussion of client fees, always a difficult issue for human services nonprofits. I had to remind my colleagues that the board had approved the budget for the coming year. Although it could always advise management on the topic, it was management's responsibility to establish fees that met budget cost requirements.

Similarly the CEO can overstep his/her authority. Nobody does his or her job perfectly.

Example: The CEO of a board, on which I served as the chair, signed a six-year lease for office space, without board approval. When I questioned him on the action, he pointed out that he regularly signs operational contracts for much larger expenditures. I countered that there was a long-term contract involved with this transaction.

In both for-profit and nonprofit boards, the board and management can sometimes cross the responsibility dividing line. If there is a strong partnership when this occasionally occurs, without material consequence, the issues can be easily resolved within the partnership structure. In this instance the board quietly passed a post hoc approval of the contact.

Mutual Respect. Lack of mutual respect can manifest itself in a number of different ways.

Examples: A board member describes the relationship, "We tell the executive director exactly what to do." When management or staff 's performance is weak, a board member shows lack of respect with traditional comment like these, "Can't expect more from a nonprofit organization."

In turn, a CEO can describe his board as "a group of nice people but not sharp volunteers." Or "The board chair doesn't return my phone calls. I could be running away with the cash and h/she wouldn't know it."

The CEO needs to look to the board in positive, not controlling, terms as a group supporting his/her efforts to achieve the organization's mission. The board needs to view the management as a group of professionals, hopefully peers, not servants.The antiquated CEO refrain "the board is my boss" is not helpful to building a viable partnership. Board members, although skilled professionals in their expertise areas, must acknowledge that nonprofit managers often have more field management experiences then those who are individual contributors, such as physicians, professors and accountants. Just because a director is employed full-time by a business organization doesn't mean he or she is equipped on management issues.

Caring & Nurturing: The nonprofit board has a continuing obligation to be certain that the management team has opportunities to upgrade their skills and broaden their understandings. While most nonprofits have tight budgets, some need to allocate money for professional development of high potential personnel. One organization with which I was associated offered a sabbatical for a CEO who performed well and was in danger of a burnout. In practice, upgrading and broadening management personnel often is ignored, and the better performers move elsewhere.

If A Board Chair or CEO Has Partnership Questions? - What To Do

Acknowledge the Partnership Problem: Convince yourself that the partnership needs improvement. Also spending some political capital to improve the situation will contribute to achieving mission objectives.

Example: Evidence of a viable partnership is of interest to funders.

For the Brave Ones: Send a copy of this blog-post to your board chair or to the CEO if you are a board chair. It can open a fruitful conversation between the two sides.

Survey: Ask a volunteer interviewer to personally interview a sampling of board, management and staff to assess the status of the partnership. The interviewer should have substantial experience with depth interviewing.

Take Action: Work with your partner as a peer to achieve improvement.

The relationship between board and management needs to evolve into a partnership over time. A nonprofit organizational chart can't reveal whether or not the partnership actually exists!

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