Cultivating the Board Chair – Executive Relationship

This relationship, like any other relationship, needs constant nourishment and care.

– Wokie Weah, President of Youthprise


What we know from experience, and what the research supports, is that the relationship between the board chair and the executive is crucial to the functioning of a nonprofit organization.

A board chair and executive that don’t get along create a recipe for trouble. They can divert essential resources from achieving the organizational mission to focusing on power struggles, miscommunication, compromised services, and deteriorating community relations, including with funders.

On the other hand, a strong board chair-executive relationship can be an opportunity for dynamic leadership.

The board chair – executive relationship is interdependent and complex, influenced by:

  • Assumptions of hierarchy, true or not
  • Skills and knowledge in nonprofit governance, leadership and management
  • Organizational development and behavior
  • Interpersonal acumen
  • Subsector normative behavior

Facilitating a strong board chair-executive relationship isn’t easy, but thankfully there is some great thought leadership we can turn to in practice and research.

Tips from Nonprofit Executives:

We reached out to a handful of executive directors in the Twin Cities area to ask for their advice on this relationship. This very unscientific survey asked two questions and provides some great advice:

What advice would you give a new Executive Director in helping them create a good relationship with his/her board chair?


  1. Get to know them – ask them why they got involved or for stories about their relationship with the organization or mission.
  2. Establish realistic expectations especially around availability, communications, and executive performance. Specifically, schedule regular check-ins, copy the board chair on key emails, and clarify communication styles and preferences in advance
  3. Ask the board chair to be a resource to you to help decrease executive isolation and provide advice and critical listening when making challenging decisions.
  4. Speak with one voice and try to address differences in private conversations as appropriate (sometimes differences must be aired, but do so constructively).
  5. Understand this is a shared and hopefully complementary leadership opportunity.
  6. Agree on how to evaluate the organizational progress including methodology, timeframe and metrics.
  7. Build trust continuously – be transparent, follow through, ask for assistance when needed, embrace healthy conflict and master the art of compromise.

“By getting to know each other you start to establish trust, openness, and a practice of communicating more than the tasks at hand.”

Kate Barr, Executive Director of Nonprofit Assistance Fund

Think about a great board chair you have worked with, what were his/her attributes that you admired most? Great board chairs…

  1. Focused the governance on mission, strategies and stewarding resources
  2. Were direct, fair and objective
  3. Were willing to suggest stretch goals for the executive
  4. Set an example for board giving and participation
  5. Had a reliable and solid understanding of nonprofit governance
  6. Set appropriate boundaries and hold others accountable to them
  7. Had strong listening and facilitation skills
  8. Understand how their leadership role is complimentary to the CEO

Many of these tips and suggestions are supported by research.

Tips from the Research:

For Executives* For Board Chairs**
  1. Facilitate interaction between board members and with the executive
  2. Show consideration and respect toward board members
  3. Envision change and innovation for the organization with the board
  4. Provide useful and helpful information to the board
  5. Initiate and maintain structure for the board
  6. Promote board accomplishments and productivity
  7. Provide opportunities for the board to evaluate itself
  1. Don’t surprise the executive
  2. Provide clarity about problems and help with solutions
  3. Be honest and trustworthy
  4. Be loyal and committed to the organization
  5. Understand your executive’s perspective and agenda
  6. Understand the executive’s preferences
  7. Depend on the executive’s strengths and use them
  8. Recognize your executive’s weaknesses and secure resources to assist him or her
  9. Be aware of your executive’s hot buttons or pet peeves
  10. Provide annual reviews

* Adapted from Robert Herman’s chapter “Executive Leadership” in the Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management, Third Edition)

** Adapted from Wayne Turk’s article “The Art of Managing Up

Across all these lists the emphasis in on communication, respect, loyalty and evaluation. Healthy board chair -executive relationships are always a signal that the organization is strong enough to embrace robust discussions, be open to new opportunities and bring many voices together to advocate for the organization’s mission.

The strength of this relationship affects every aspect of the organization. Invest the time and resources in building a strong relationship and get help when you need it. Frequently the difference between a good and a great relationship is the willingness to build and maintain it. Here’s a conversation guide developed by Aurora to help you get started: Building an Effective Team Relationship

What tips or advice do you have? What have you seen work really well or fail miserably?

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