Reflections on Board Leadership and Overcoming Challenges

In the past couple of weeks three different situations collided making me think deeper about the role of the board, executive director and generally about the overall leadership structure of nonprofits.

First, I attended a screening of Uncharitable, a documentary based on Dan Pallotta’s 2013 TED Talk The way we think about charity is dead wrong. The film highlights the need to think about nonprofits differently and the value of properly resourcing nonprofits to solve our community’s most pressing challenges. It emphasized the need to reconsider outdated practices around nonprofit compensation, marketing, and overhead constraints. If you haven’t seen it, you definitely should check it out.

Next, I attended a Women’s Impact Fund event focused on dispelling myths hindering active participation in nonprofit board leadership. The discussions centered around the myth, “The best board members have affluence, executive leadership experience, elite educational backgrounds, white cultural norms, native speaker accents ...” The panel discussion and small group breakouts challenged us to think beyond traditional approaches and pushed us to consider what might become possible if we were more welcoming, more authentic, and able to laser focus on impact and outcomes. It definitely got my wheels spinning.

Finally, I had four separate conversations with nonprofit executive directors that highlighted the strain between the board and executive leadership:

  • “My board must think I can squeeze money out of rocks. I am good but I am not a magician.”
  • A new Executive Director shared, “the board coordinated a welcome party for me and then left it to me to invite guests. I thought shouldn't they be doing that.”
  • “I have been working every night until midnight and then today, the day of our big event, a board member asked me to make more changes. I am exhausted.”
  • “My board isn’t sure what it is supposed to be doing? Are they a working board or a strategic board, no one seems to know.”

How challenging.

And yet there is hope. I did have one Executive Director share that her board is great, and in every interaction, I had with that board they were engaged, supportive, insightful, and willing to support the Executive Director anyway they could.

There was significant trust, intentional training and a mutual respect and appreciation for one another.

Board and staff relationships aren’t perfect, they take intentional caretaking. Here are a few actions you and your organization might consider:

  1. Watch Dan Pallotta's TED Talk: Watch or revisit Pallotta's insights in The way we think about charity is dead wrong to challenge your perspective on nonprofit resourcing.
  2. Challenge Assumptions: Encourage open discussions within your organization to challenge traditional assumptions about board member criteria, fostering a more inclusive and impactful board.
  3. Clarify Roles and Expectations: Establish clear expectations for both executive directors and board members to ensure a shared understanding of responsibilities and avoid undue stress.
  4. Foster Supportive Board Culture: Prioritize a supportive and collaborative board culture, emphasizing engagement, authenticity, and a collective commitment to the organization's mission. You are on the same team. Cheer one another on!

Let’s challenge the norms. Together, we can reshape the narrative, inspire meaningful action, and leave a legacy of positive impact.

PS. If you are in the Triangle, Armstrong McGuire is co-sponsoring a private screening of Uncharitable at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh on Thursday, February 22nd at 5 p.m. Only a few seats remain, so grab yours today. Watch the trailer.

Katie Weeks is a Senior Advisor with Armstrong McGuire who specializes in executive searches, team and staff retreats, and coaching. Learn more about Katie and check out her other musings in her bio.

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