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October 22, 2020
It’s Up to Nonprofit CEOs to Make Their Boards Effective
By Carter McNamara

Carter McNamara
Carter McNamara
While a nonprofit's board of directors is responsible for setting policy and providing oversight to the organization’s chief executive, in reality it often is the CEO who guides board members, providing strong input to their deliberations and decisions. The question for both parties: what is the appropriate level of direction setting?

Truth be told, it is not uncommon for nonprofit CEOs to perceive that some (and maybe more than a few) of their board members do not understand much, if anything, about the organization and its programs. Consequently, these CEOs may resist accepting direction from board members. New or struggling CEOs can even resent and disrespect board members to the extent that they ignore them altogether.

In looking to understand why a board may not be fully effective, many experts see the CEO as part of the problem. Some observers even assert that, in certain instances, a CEO might not truly want an effective board and, therefore, neither helps members to realize their roles nor provides needed information to board members. In contrast, many seasoned CEOs know that their jobs can be enhanced considerably with guidance and resources that a highly effective board is uniquely able to provide. Those CEOs also know that it is up to them to help their board members be most effective.

CEOs can support the board’s development by:

Helping board members understand their governance roles.

The CEO often has the most interest and the best resources to fully understand the role of a nonprofit board and, therefore, can be extremely helpful in clarifying their roles. In the spirit of a strategic, mutually supportive relationship, the CEO can work with the board chair or the chair of a board development committee to design and conduct the first several board trainings and/or orientations.

Suggesting potential board members.

As much as possible, these people should be independent board members #147; people who do not have any other strong, vested interest in the nonprofit. Staff members, people who are close to the CEO, and personal friends of the CEO should not be board members.

Training board members about the organization and its programs.

Frequently, members serve on a board for years and still do not understand the organization’s programs. CEOs can significantly increase the effectiveness of board members, and their contributions to the nonprofit, by orienting and updating members about the organization’s programs, history, collaborators, and successes.

Playing a strong role in strategic planning discussions and decisions.

Boards that view their role as focusing primarily on top-level policy sometimes determine the mission, vision, values, and top-level goals without input from the CEO and senior staff members. This is a mistake. The most useful strategic planning sessions often involve information, discussions, and suggestions from staff members.

Participating in board committees.

The CEO can provide great value to committees, especially fundraising, finance, personnel (except when the board is evaluating the CEO and determining his/her compensation), programs, and marketing. Recently, some nonprofits have begun placing other staff members on some board committees, on either a voting or non-voting status, which further enhances the board-staff working relationship.

Providing advance information before meetings.

Some CEOs have learned that one of the best ways to incapacitate a board is by giving members new materials during a board meeting. This quickly overwhelms and confuses them. As a result, members often end up listening and agreeing with whatever the CEO suggests. Seasoned CEOs, who are dedicated to a strategic partnership, share materials well before board meetings, so that the members can review the materials in advance and make well-informed decisions.

CEOs and board members sign up to advance a nonprofit’s mission. It is good and worthy work. Frequently being more experienced in nonprofit management, the CEO owes it to herself or himself—and the organization—to help board members be as effective as possible.

Carter McNamara is partner at Authenticity Consulting LLC, which helps nonprofits build capacity. He can be reached at or 800-971-2250.

Posted: July 2009
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