Making the Most of Summer:  Strengthening the Board Chair/ED Bond

Making the Most of Summer: Strengthening the Board Chair/ED Bond

Mid-summer. The time of transition. While we enjoy the ease of summer days, Labor Day looms on the horizon, with all the busy-ness that autumn brings.

Many nonprofit organizations take the summer off. Or rather, the Board does. If you generally meet monthly, you skip a meeting in the summer. Or you anticipate that people will be on vacation, so you don’t schedule important votes for the summer meetings. Understandable.

But that doesn’t mean that the work stops.

If your organization is anything like most of the ones I’ve worked with, the Executive Director is busy gearing up for the fall. Behind the scenes, planning meetings are being held. The staff you need to fulfill the newly funded program has to be hired and go through orientation. The new software system has to be run through its paces and tutorials given to staff. That foundation with a September deadline wants a lot of information that won’t write itself.

The Board chair is also busy. That board retreat you’re anticipating in September isn’t going to magically appear. The new board members need to be oriented. The dashboard you want to see each month has to be crafted. That same foundation wants to meet the chair and hear her passion for the work.

“The single best sign of a healthy nonprofit is a strong relationship 
between the Board Chair and the CEO.”

— Joan Garry Consulting

What could be possible if the Board Chair and the Executive Director were to make a point to meet this summer and see what’s on each other’s plates? What would it make possible if the Chair and the ED were to talk about how they can support each other in their respective roles, particularly as the busy season starts? What would it make possible if you then continued those meetings – not just about immediate concerns, but to maintain and deepen the working relationship, talk about broad issues that may be on the horizon, consider how to shape the board and administration to enhance mission delivery, reinforce the focus on ultimate goals?

What would that make possible for the organization as a whole, and for the people you serve?

Working together, the Board Chair and Executive Director have enormous influence on the personality and aspirations of an organization. As the Chair orchestrates and influences the board, the ED orchestrates and supervises the staff. When they are in concert with each other, the entire organization is building toward the same goals.

Yet in many organizations, a new Chair steps into the role with little understanding of the pressures on the Executive Director. In return, the ED often has little understanding of the particular strengths and passions of the Chair. Mistakes and missteps happen because they haven’t taken the time to build the rapport that allows them to call on each other as needed.

It’s hard to schedule around many people, and summer is especially hard. But the relative quiet of summer gives the Chair and ED many opportunities to meet. Iced tea? Lemonade?

The Board Chair <-> CEO relationship is so crucial, that the strength of the organization can fluctuate depending on the strength of the relationship. In Delaware, the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement has a Fellowship for strengthening just that relationship. How might YOU strengthen that bond? Let’s talk.  

Where’s Your Comfort Zone?

Where’s Your Comfort Zone?

  • “We’ve never done that before.”
  • “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
  • “I don’t know those people.”
  • “But they’re for-profit!”
  • “Why would those liberals care about this?!”
  • “Why would those conservatives care about this!?”

Over the years, I’ve heard variations on each one of these statements from nonprofits across the country. Each statement is more a reflection on our own comfort zone than on reality.

When we allow our habits to keep us from trying new things, we keep ourselves from growing.

When we find new board members just like ourselves, we allow our current lives to restrict our future growth.

When we allow our assumptions to keep us from reaching out to a new contact, we allow our assumptions to narrow our view.

Each assumption we make is based on stories we tell ourselves. Because we know one thing about a person, we assume other things about them. We create stories about what they must be like.

  • Because she is pro-choice, she must also want to take away our guns.
  • Because he wants to repeal Obamacare, he must also be anti-gay.

And since we’re not comfortable with what we believe we know about them, we don’t reach out.

Reaching out to other individuals gives us the opportunity to hear their stories. We learn about a new person and we learn new ways of thinking. Hearing the path they took to their current work gives us points of commonality. They sold encyclopedias door-to-door? So did I! They took their experience with a deaf teammate, and turned it into a new professional path? How inspiring!

When a group of people – your board of directors, for instance – learn each other’s story, they become more open to new ideas. They’ve just immersed themselves in hearing new things, and their minds are open to contemplating new ways of looking at the world.

Stepping out of your comfort zone and reaching out to someone you don’t know is immediately rewarding: you meet someone you hadn’t met before, learning new things you hadn’t yet had an opportunity to learn.

With each step we take, it gets easier to see people as individuals, not ideology.

Most importantly, each time you step out of your comfort zone, your comfort zone gets bigger.

Let’s talk about leading your board to push their comfort zone. Reach me at The Detwiler Group or

Can you share responsibility and maintain accountability?

Can you share responsibility and maintain accountability?

The authoritarian approach to management – top down, we know best, we’ll make the decisions, you just do it – is usually pretty good at demanding accountability.  It is the Board that answers the questions:

  • Who will take on this task?
  • When will it be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

But nonprofit management is shifting from authoritarian to stewardship* – where the board and Executive Director/CEO are partners.

Further on the spectrum, many organizations are shifting to the stakeholder style, in which different groups are represented on the board.

Even further, and many organizations have democratic decision making. Community members, staff, board, administration are all involved in steering the organization.

Most organizations are a blend of two or more of these management approaches, but as authoritarian approaches diminish, what does that mean for accountability?

If there is no single entity at the top that tells you what to do, and punishes you if you don’t do it, how do you make sure it’s going to get done?

Accountability is not just top-down. According Merriam-Webster, accountability means “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions”

An obligation or a willingness to accept responsibility.

Accountability can be self-imposed; as management styles evolve to become more participatory, self-imposed accountability emerges.

As responsibility for the organization and outcomes shifts from the top downward, individuals at all levels participate in crafting the desired outcome. Participants become invested in its success. They decide that it’s an important goal; a goal that they want to be part of, take ownership of, and work to accomplish.

This is where accountability is triggered. As an individual takes ownership of some aspect of the project, they answer the first of the three questions:

  • Who will take on this task?

But the next two questions must also be answered:

  • When will this task be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

As soon as someone takes the lead on a task, it should become automatic that the next two questions are asked and answered.

A strategic plan crafted by multiple constituents will be enthusiastically embraced. It will have major goals and strategies. But even as responsibility broadens, the questions remain. With every decision, in every meeting:

  • Who will take on this task?
  • When will it be accomplished?
  • How will we know when it’s accomplished?

Accountability requires answers to all three. Make asking them a habit.

*See Governance and Accountability: A Different Choice for Nonprofits, by Tracey Coule in Nonprofit Quarterly.

For more about engaging your board and community, follow me at The Detwiler Group, or contact me directly at




I’m a new board president! Now what?

I’m a new board president! Now what?

Congratulations! Being elected Board President is a vote of confidence.  Your friends may commiserate, but they don’t realize that you have superpowers.

With you at the helm, you make it possible to build the future your board and staff have envisioned.

It will take time, of course.

  • You will partner with your CEO in executing that vision.
  • You will mentor board members as they develop their roles and accomplish them.
  • You will be cheerleading.
  • You will be checking in with the ‘wisdom in the room.

You will make it possible for each member of your board to be part of that future.

In short, this organization is now one of the top four priorities in your life, along with your family, your job and possibly your house of worship.

Before your first board meeting as President, take some time to prepare.

What do you know about the people around the table? What do they know about each other? What do they know about you?

What do you want your working relationship to be, with the CEO? With the board?

How do you want to work together?

Google recently discovered that when individuals in groups get to know each other as people, those groups are more productive.  So consider, what does it make possible when each board member feels a real part of the group? What can you do to create that camaraderie?

The mechanics of being board president may be clear: preside at meetings; sign contracts; represent the organization in community meetings.

But developing a board that builds a future together – that’s your superpower.

Why are we doing this?

Why are we doing this?

Last night I dined with the interim dean of a college. As we talked about the role of an interim, she pointed out that one of the most important questions an interim can ask – actually ANY new executive – is “Why?”  “Why?” asked with genuine curiosity. Not “why the heck would you ever do this?” but just, “why are things done this way?”

Customs, traditions and ways of doing things build up over time until the original rationale is lost. The person who first instituted a procedure is no longer there. Circumstances, personnel, resources and society have changed, but the process has become so habitual that it’s just normal procedure.

The new CEO of Target, Brian Cornell, used this powerful question to completely remake the chain of stores over the two years he has been at the helm. At a time when so many department stores are having a hard time, Target is flourishing.

He did it by asking questions. With the advantage of being new, he was able to look into every aspect of the stores and ask questions to get at root causes. Going beyond finding those causes, though, he continued asking questions.

Looking at ourselves with fresh eyes isn’t always easy, but what if we put ourselves in the place of that interim or new executive, looked around, and asked, “why?”

If “why” sounds accusatory, there are other ways to ask:

  • Tell me about this process. How did it start?
  • What prompted us to start doing that?
  • What are we trying to accomplish by doing this?
  • How does doing this help our mission?

Note that US and WE and OUR, not YOU or YOUR, makes it about all of us and the organization, not a single individual.

Real curiosity is the key. Discovery — without first thinking you have a better way to do it.

For board members, this means listening to the newest members; encouraging them to be curious. And not being defensive when they ask. Join together in the discovery.

It’s the first step in letting go of what made you great, so you can envision new ways of creating change in your community.

Just like the real estate agent helps you see what you’ve overlooked for years, fresh eyes can help us see the procedures that have solidified into place until they are invisible to us. Only then can you change them.

Follow me at The Detwiler Group for more about nonprofit governance, education and strategic planning, or reach me at

It’s February. Do you know where your strategic plan is?

It’s February. Do you know where your strategic plan is?

You probably spent time and money developing a strategic plan. Your board voted to approve it. Perhaps a board committee created it; maybe your executive director and senior staff.

Where is it now? That big report sitting on the shelf isn’t going to do your organization any good if it’s not a living document.

When did you last pull out the strategic plan and track your progress toward your goals?  When was the last time the board spent more than 10 minutes discussing that progress?

It’s a lovely plan, but…..

A plan without discrete steps, a timeline and accountability isn’t a plan. It’s a wish list. Here are a few tips for maintaining your progress, so that 3 years from now you can look back and say, “We did this!”

  • Make sure you have the will to accomplish the plan. This may seem obvious, but it’s often the first pitfall. “It’s a lovely plan, and really, this is what we want to accomplish. But…..we don’t have the money; the time; the people; the skills”…..whatever.  If you truly commit to the plan, then you find the money, the time, the people, the skills. It may not happen immediately, but it will never happen without making that commitment.
  • Make sure that someone is accountable for each step of the plan. They may not be the person who actually, physically does the work, but someone has to be on top of whether it happens or not. Otherwise, everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job.
  • Have those accountable people regularly report to the board. The entire board voted to move ahead with the plan; the entire board should be invested in whether the plan is being accomplished. If you have to report regularly, then you get it done. If it’s not done, then here’s your opportunity to talk about how to get back on track. 

“If anything is certain, it is that change is certain. The world we are planning for today will not exist in this form tomorrow.”  Phil Crosby

  • Regularly set aside time to discuss the overall progress, not just individual steps. Is the plan still relevant? Do new circumstances warrant changes? No matter how good your plan is, you can’t foresee everything that might happen in the course of three years. The government may cut funding. You may receive a huge bequest. Some new research may come to light.
  • Celebrate the milestones. It took a lot of work to craft the plan. It takes even more work to execute it. Recognize that work and what you accomplish. Tell your stakeholders about your progress. Let these celebrations create momentum to lead you to even higher heights.

Engage your board in keeping the strategic plan a living document. It may sit on a shelf, but it won’t get dusty. You’ll regularly reference it in board meetings, and watch the progress toward your goals. Potential board members will see your commitment, and want to be a part of your growth.

Theodor Herzl wrote,

“If you will it, it is no dream. And if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay.

The first step is commitment. If you have the will, you can accomplish the rest.