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The Vital Importance of Building Trust between Non-Profit Executive Director and Board Chair

Updated: May 1

In a non-profit organization, no relationship is more important than the one between the Chair of the Board and the Executive Director (ED) or CEO. Curious about why this relationship is so meaningful.? Read on.

Trust Relationship between the Chair of the Board of Directors and the Executive Director.
An essential trust relationship.

The Goal:

Let’s close our eyes and imagine two scenarios around the goal of “Improving organizational sustainability by 15% by bringing additional money into the organization.”

Scenario 1: The Board Chair and the Executive Director understand the organizational vision, strategic goals and objectives being worked towards. Yet, tension exists around how the goals will be achieved. The Board Chair believes the organization must increase its donations to improve its sustainability. The Executive Director believes a calculated risk is necessary (start a social enterprise) to create discretionary funds that can be reinvested in the organization to improve sustainability.

Scenario 2: The Board Chair and Executive Director understand the organizational vision, strategic goals and objectives being worked toward. They have come together with the Board to draft a set of strategic goals and objectives that will move the organization forward with ease while building internal capacity. The leadership team and staff have submitted clear action plans showing exactly how the team will achieve each goal.

Challenges related to each scenario:

As you read these scenarios, I’m sure that you can easily find some challenges:

Scenario 1:

  • Tension exists between the Board Chair and ED as they have split purposes. While the Board sets the direction, the Executive Director (as the operations manager) is responsible for defining how the job will be done.

  • The goal is unclear about how the organizational sustainability will be achieved, and the Chair and the ED have very different ideas on how this will be done.

  • With the Chair and the ED on different sides of the fence, a conversation needs to takes place to iron out the various perspectives and make a choice so everyone is going in the same direction.

Scenario 2:

  • While there is no tension in this situation as clarity on how sustainability will be improved, the goal remains ambiguous. The Chair and the ED can potentially misinterpret the desired outcome: “15% more money” into the organization.

  • A clear action plan is essential as it communicates to the board how the ED will direct staff to achieve the goal. However, as is often the case, circumstances or market shifts can derail the plan. Unless the ED speaks with the Chair about these changes before making decisions, the Chair may feel they are unnecessary.

What's at the heart of the Board Chair - ED relationship:

Interestingly, at the core of these scenarios is the relationship between the ED and the Board, or more specifically the Chair of the Board. Here are some things to consider about this relationship in your organization:

  1. How deep does your Board dive into examining and exploring how the Board would like the goals to be achieved? Here are two examples: 1) “We will increase the funds we bring in by 10%.” 2) “We will increase our incoming revenues by 10% by staying focused on corporate sponsors, generating revenues from programs, and assessing social enterprise ideas.”

  2. Where is the cross-over between setting strategic direction (Board’s Responsibility) and operationalizing the activities (Executive Director’s responsibility)? How is this managed in your organization?

  3. What level of trust does your non-profit give to the Executive Director to achieve the goals set out? How is progress measured? How does the Board re-direct the Executive Director if progress isn’t on target or toward the right goal?

As we all know, while the Board is the official “boss” of the Executive Director, the Chair of the Board is ultimately the Board-ED liaison. The Chairperson is responsible for connecting with, answering questions, and reinforcing what the board wants the ED to do. The Chairperson’s job is essential and must be taken seriously by the Board and the ED. Trust is crucial between the Board Chair and Board and the Executive Director.

Instilling Trust in the Relationship:

In our blog post Stories that Shape Trust, I’ve highlighted the five elements for priming trust as per Judith E. Glaser, founder of Conversational Intelligence.

T – Be Transparent.

R – Build Respect and Relationships while sharing.

U – Understand other’s perspectives. Take a walk in their shoes.

S – Create a vision of shared Success and give Support.

T – Tell the Truth. Be honest.

Open, transparent conversations will likely be the norm if the relationship between the Board Chair and the ED is solid and trust exists. In this case, the ED will bring questions and concerns directly to the Board Chair for consideration and determine which items need to be presented to the Board for discussion. When trust exists, the ED feels confident that the Board Chair will support any decision they make based on the information available at that time.

Trust between the Board Chair and the ED is essential for a non-profit to function as it should. The Board Chair needs to be confident that the ED will make the best decisions for the organization in every situation. When situations requiring strategic decisions arise, the Board Chair must trust that the ED will bring these decisions to the board for discussion.

When you consider the relationship between your current board and Executive Director, how does trust impact that relationship? Share your observations below.

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