The Board/Staff Relationship

In reading and chatting with current board members, I’ve heard examples of actions taken by USPA staff that the board members believe didn’t match up with what the board approved.  While it’s difficult for me to comment on the specifics of those situations, since I wasn’t involved, it did get me to thinking about what the relationship ought to be.

I’ve been a board member only once before.   I did a non-voting internship on the board for a small not-for-profit organization (a transitional housing facility for women in crisis).  The organization was small, as was the staff.  The board was able to meet monthly, and as most NFP boards do, it provided guidance to the executive director and her staff, and focused its efforts primarily on fundraising.

USPA, however, is a membership association – a bit of a different animal.  Fundraising isn’t a function of the board.  Unlike NFP or corporate boards, the board of an association directly represents the membership of the organization, and is elected by the members.

But like all boards for organizations large enough to support a paid executive staff, the USPA board has to contend with the thorny issue of governance.  Where is the line drawn between the board and the Executive Director (and staff)?

Since the board only meets twice per year for three days, it would be impossible for the board to take on the role of directly executing its own programs – that responsibility necessarily needs to lie with the Executive Director and his staff.  Indeed, the USPA Governance Manual spells this out, quite clearly.

USPA employs an executive director who, in turn, hires an
administrative staff as necessary to carry out the policies of
the board, the administration of USPA programs, and the
daily management of USPA as a not-for-profit association
and business.

Ultimately, though, it’s like any employer-employee relationship – it comes down to setting expectations, measuring how well the employee meets those expectations, and building and maintaining a trusted working relationship with open communication.  The board needs to be able to trust the ED and staff to use their best judgment – anything else would be an impractical level of oversight given the structure and role of the board.

Sounds simple, right?  Except it’s not – it’s not simple when there’s one boss and one employee – it’s got to be even more complicated when the Executive Director has 22 “bosses,” some of whom have their own agendas that may not line up with that of the full board.  Yes, the board passes resolutions, but they information contained in those is often at such a high level that anyone executing those resolutions has to put quite a bit of energy into interpreting the details behind those resolutions, after the board has already gone home and won’t be back for another six months.

It’s easy to me to see how even staff with the best of intentions can “go astray” from the perspective of a board member – having to infer intent from a board resolution can’t be easy.  Maybe he or she follows up with the Committee Chair, or one or two board members for those details.  So now the ED has that board member’s opinion of the intent, which may be in direct opposition to what another board member believed about the details.

A perfect storm for breakdown of a trusted working relationship, for sure.   Then, if you add an Executive Director who is a bit more … shall we say … “independent,” next thing you know you have execution of policy that strays far from the resolution passed by the board.

As an outsider, I don’t know enough first-hand about how the current Executive Director views his role and relationship to the board, or whether some his staff view their relationship to the board differently.  If I’m elected, I look forward to learning more about that and to working with my fellow board members to find the right balance between the board and executive management so that there’s trust and comfort on both sides.

In the meantime, here’s some fun reading on the topic from the ASAE:  this whole section is on governance.

Board/staff relationships from the perspective of an Executive Director “The Exasperated CEO” and a board chair “Reaching the CEO.”

Reinventing association governance: “When Board and Staff Align” and “Reinventing Governance.”

Effective board management (not directly relevant, but lots of good ideas in here that can only improve working relationships): “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”


1 Response to “The Board/Staff Relationship”

  1. 1 Paul Fries December 13, 2008 at 7:36 am

    FYI – ASAE – American Society of Association Executives

    I had to look a bit to find the actual name of ASAE.

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