Congratulations, you are now the new executive director of a non-profit organization. One of the most challenging things you will have to do is to effectively “manage up” and work well with your board of directors. As an executive director, it is critically important to set the right tone from the outset and strike a balance that will allow you to do your work and productively collaborate with your board in the best interest of your charity.

First, it is important to understand the role of your non-profit board. The most critical functions of a board are the following:

  • Ensure the non-profit completes strategic and organizational planning and develops policies as necessary
  • Select and monitor the performance of the executive director
  • Ensure the organization has the necessary resources to fulfill its mission
  • Monitor the program and services of the non-profit
  • Ensure legal and fiduciary compliance and best practice

New and first time executive directors, however, sometimes have a challenge managing their board. This lack of experience partnering with a board as the chief officer of a non-profit oftentimes leads to dysfunction and micro-management by the board, which then creates more challenges and tensions within the organization.

In order to avoid problems from the outset, work closely with the board chair and other key leaders of the board to assure success by using some of the following steps:

  1. Written Roles and Responsibilities – Develop a concise document that clearly delineates the roles and responsibilities of the board and those of the executive director. This will provide defined parameters and boundaries so that all key players understand their respective functions.
  1. Document strategic, organizational and work plans – In order for a board to monitor progress, it needs documentation defining where the non-profit is going and the benchmarks it is using to achieve success. Organizational and work planning can be developed by the staff and approved by the board. Strategic planning is different and involves development by the board, in collaboration with staff, from the outset of the process.
  1. Provide board material in advance of meetings – Boards sometimes assume a greater role than they should when they believe a vacuum exists with regard to the work that needs to be done. As executive director, work closely to develop effective board meetings, communicate closely with influencers on the board and provide all relevant material (e.g. agendas, board books and information) at least 7-10 days in advance of any board meeting.
  1. Use a facilitator – When there are critical and complex issues before the board, hire outside counsel to help facilitate productive discussions. Executive directors can be prophets in their own land, and by hiring an unbiased third-party to work during key points in time (e.g. strategic planning, board retreats), organizations can effectively manage important business.

Overall, these strategies will help keep a non-profit board of directors focused on their oversight responsibilities and will allow you, as the executive director, the flexibility you need to manage the day to day operation.