January 03, 2012

Examining the Complex Relationship Between Board and Executive Director

In my most recent post, I invited readers to weigh in on who is ultimately responsible for the performance of a board: the executive director or the board members themselves.

A majority of those who commented (11 of 19, or about 58 percent) said the executive was ultimately responsible for board performance. But it was hardly a ringing endorsement (even though I agree).

As I re-read the comments, two things stood out.

First, this is a complicated issue. Many comments acknowledged the murkiness and complexity of the question—so much so that in some comments, it was hard to tell which viewpoint the comment supported.

One reader wrote that the executive director had the responsibility for sustaining board performance but that the board must first step up and accept its responsibility to perform. Another noted that boards depend on executive directors to "guide them to leadership issues and the best way to advance the organization" but went on to characterize the executive's role in doing this as "unspoken, stealth, and very complex."

These acknowledgments of the nuance and inherent contradictions of the board-executive partnership made me feel guilty for attempting to force a simple, either-or answer to a really complicated question.

The other striking thing about the comments was the number of people who weren't really happy with their answer. For example, one reader wrote that she would like to believe that the board chair is in charge of board performance but that unfortunately she had rarely seen board chairs step up.

These comments point to the significant discrepancies, not always acknowledged, between how boards ought to function and how they actually function in real life. Acknowledging these disconnects, rather than pretending that they are the exception rather than the rule, seems like a good first step toward a healthier and more realistic conversation about how we can strengthen nonprofit boards.

I'm looking forward to more of that conversation in the year ahead.