What does it take to have a great relationship between a Board Chair and an Executive Director? How much should the two work hand-in-hand to lead the organization, set goals and priorities, and drive outcomes? All nonprofit organizations strive for a high-functioning relationship between the Board Chair and Executive Director, but some fall short due to a disconnect in expectations of the roles.
Students, faculty and staff joined the U-M Board Fellowship Program for a public forum discussing the Board Chair and Executive Director relationship. Panelists for the forum included:
- Jamie Buhr, Board Chair, Michigan Theater
- Russ Collins, Executive Director & CEO, Michigan Theater
- Lori Bennett, Board Chair, Neutral Zone
- Samiksha Sneha, Youth Board Chair, Neutral Zone
- Lori Roddy, Executive Director, Neutral Zone
The forum feature the Neutral Zone and the Michigan Theater, which both are pleased with their board chair–executive director relationships. These relationships didn’t form overnight, but are built on trust. The cooperative work happens with frequent communication, respect for each other’s roles, and an equivalent sense of responsibility to each other and the organization.
Neutral Zone, with its focus on teens, created teen board positions in order to give them a better understanding of their key stakeholders and incorporate their feedback in all decision-making. Lori Bennett noted that the teens also make for a much more fun and dynamic meetings. Lori Roddy takes charge of the day-to-day operations while Lori Bennett and Samiksha (Co- Presidents) keep the board focused on the mission, strategic planning, overarching goals of the organization, including financial stability. Lori Roddy explained that this division of duties between board members and staff is something that they cover in the onboarding of each new board member.
Jamie Buhr served on for-profit and nonprofit boards before coming to the Michigan Theater. He said that for-profit roles can be more about “policing,” especially when working with a public company. However, nonprofit roles need to be much more of a partnership; board members serve as volunteers driven by their passion: in nonprofits, board members must resist the desire to over-manage the organization.
Russ Collins talked about the important distinction between “leading” an organization and “managing” an organization. The ED should be focused on management of the day-to-day, while the board may be focused on leading. Russ felt that the board serves as the “watchdog for the community,” assuring that the organization serves the community, its mission, and is fiscally responsible. He recognized that when disagreements are resolved, it is important for the board chair and ED to present a unified front.