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We Can Work It Out: How the CEO and the Board can Stay out of Divorce Court

A relationship is never easy. To succeed, all parties need to work on it; be committed to its success. This applies to the CEO’s relationship with the nonprofit board of directors. In the past I’ve discussed “Who’s in charge?” The importance of clarity and delineation in the bylaws and then, of course, in practice.
A strong relationship at the top of the nonprofit can be characterized as a partnership. The board creates policy and sets out a strategic plan. The CEO and the staff team carry out the policies and execute the work plan called for in the annual budget. Sounds simple? Issues arise that generate fog. For example:
CEO FIRES A BOARD MEMBER’S FAVORITE. When poor performance issues arise, the CEO needs to know that s/he has authority to act. At the same time, the CEO should document performance shortcomings, try to rectify them, and act in a fair way. There should be no “end-around” shenanigans tolerated by the board. If staff can circumvent the CEO, this undermines the leader’s authority.
CEO APPEARS TO BE DOUBLE DIPPING. The bookkeeper sees expenses showing up on company credit card vouchers, and then again on expense reimbursement forms for the CEO. What to do? Sticky wicket! If there’s a good relationship, ask the boss if there’s an error. If the relationship is on shaky ground, ask another senior staff member for advice; go to volunteer Treasurer and point out the apparent discrepancy. Junior staff are in a very tenuous position. But if there is theft, it has to be dealt with. Easy for me to say. Thankfully, these problems are rare. But when they rear their ugly head: act.
BOARD MEMBER IS ENTHUSED ABOUT AN EVENT IDEA. You’ve heard about the one where a board member attends a great event at another nonprofit in town. And now wants “his/her” nonprofit to repeat it and make thousands? Hey. Maybe it’s a great idea. But the board needs to have standards for such things: if we’re adding an event, there will be a business plan. If our staff is stretched, we don’t put that job on their shoulders. If a board member wants to develop the plan, put some work into designing how it will look. Well, maybe. Hopefully, there’s a development committee that can air out these great ideas that seem to come up two or three times a year.
Open communication, clear sense of who’s responsible for what, demonstration of a truly collaborative way of doing business all go a long way to keeping the CEO and the Board of Directors out of divorce court.

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