It’s Complicated

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Let’s start with the premise that people get involved with nonprofit organizations with the best of intent. Individuals come to organizations because they’re passionate about the mission, they have a skill set they believe will enhance the operation and they believe they can make a difference in their community. Every non profit has a board committee, sometimes called "board development" or "nominating" or "governance", whose primary role is talent development.  This cycle is fairly simplistic.. Working closely with the CEO, these committees develop matrixes to intentionally recruit diverse board members that will best serve the organization.  Hopefully, these individuals have had time to serve on committees and to learn about the organization. Best practice tells us that, once we recruit a board member, it is important to properly introduce them to the formal structures, policies and procedures of the organization through "board orientations". Nonprofits often invest time and money into retreats. Most of this time is spent on critical business imperatives like strategic planning. Very little of the time is spent on building board relationships. Building a great board is an ongoing, intentional, cyclical process that needs to be nurtured on a regular basis by both the Board Chair and the CEO. 

The biggest challenge for many organizations with which I have worked comes when recruiting Board Chairs. Unfortunately, in many nonprofits, the critical role of Board Chair can happen by default. I have heard board members sarcastically speak about missing a meeting and finding out that they are now the top candidate for leadership. In too many of our organizations, we end up with new Board Chairs who are reluctant and anxious about fulfilling this critical role. Nonprofit leaders get a new boss (depending on term limits) every couple of years, and literally pray for a positive relationship.

But what is it that we do intentionally to build this essential partnership, outside of monthly calls prior to a board meeting? Do both partners truly understand the impact that this relationship can have on the organizations we serve? And what happens when there is "drama" upon the handing off of the leadership baton, or some other crisis within the organization? Unhealthy Board Chair/CEO relationships can be exhausting, frustrating and often have significant negative impact on moving the mission forward. 

I began my leadership journey in one organization where I worked in an interim role following a sudden departure of the Executive Director. As I usually do, I raised my hand to be helpful and because I felt that I could add value to the organization. Unfortunately, this was an unexpected situation, and I had only been working at the organization for a few months. I vividly remember my early days in that role and literally calling the Board Chair every day. Yes, really....every day. In hindsight, I can only express my sincere thanks to that individual who demonstrated extreme patience with me! After going through a full search process, I was selected as the permanent ED of that organization and was fortunate to work with this incredibly talented and committed Board Chair. Our relationship has set the bar for me in looking at this complex issue of Board Chair/CEO partnerships. 

So why is this relationship so important? Aren’t the roles clearly defined? In 2015, Boardsource (the ultimate resource for nonprofit boards) released its study “Leading with Intent”. In that comprehensive study, the group looked at a variety of critical components of leadership within nonprofit organizations. At its core, this essential partnership creates the foundational culure of an organization.

A core premise of my work with leaders as they grow their leadership capacity is “FCT”... familiarity, comfort and trust. I learned the concept of FCT while working for a premier diversity and inclusion firm and the concept has served me well as I work with organizations in a variety of capacities. Let’s unpack this concept a bit. Let’s be honest, all of us believe that trust is a key component of any relationship. Yet we rarely talk with one another about how we build trust. For some, trust is earned through a series of actions and basically is built upon, integrity. DWYSYWD....Do What You Say You Will Do, and you will earn trust. For others, trust is given freely and can be lost when DWYSYWD doesn’t happen and there are too many withdrawals from the emotional bank account of life. Mutual respect and trust allows us to really impact organizations as leaders. To get to trust, we need to be intentionally focused on becoming familiar and comfortable with our partners. I would say this is true of every relationship we have in life, from our personal relationships to our professional partnerships. 

The burden of developing the essential partnership in nonprofits rests with both the CEO and the Board Chair. On March 9, 2018, I will be presenting a complimentary seminar on this topic “The Essential Partnership" at 8:00 a.m. at the Homewood Suites in Center Valley, PA. I invite both CEO’s and their Board Chairs to attend this session. I also invite the next generation of nonprofit leaders to participate in this workshop where we look at the Boardsource research and how to intentionally build the kind of partnership that will propel an organization to the next level of excellence. Ultimately, I hope to have this session available on video as well. 

I would love to hear from my readers about issues of concern relating to this topic. Please feel free to send me any questions which you might like addressed during this upcoming session.