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Key roles can help the board and executive leader support each other

Do you wonder about the ideal relationship between a nonprofit's board of directors or trustees and the executive director or chief executive?

Generally, the board envisions the future of the organization and the executive director or chief executive makes that vision a reality. You might also think of it by function. The board provides oversight and the executive leader handles implementation. But what does that mean in practice?

Consider the general guidelines below โ€” and the importance of a good relationship between both parties.

Key roles

The board and the executive director or chief executive work together to determine how the organization can best achieve its mission. Here are specific examples of expectations in four key areas: mission, money, programs and people.


Board of directors or trustees Executive director or chief executive
Approve mission, vision, values, strategic plan Work with board to develop mission, vision, values, strategic plan
Review and approve annual implementation plan to ensure consistency with strategic plan Develop annual implementation plan and advise board when milestones in implementation are reached
Ensure legal and ethical integrity
Maintain accountability, including complying with reporting and accounting requirements
Be aware of key risks and mitigation strategies


Board of directors or trustees

Executive director or chief executive

Approve annual budget Develop annual budget, establish income and expense parameters, determine specific expenditures within approved budget lines
Approve internal control policies Work with board to develop financial policies and internal controls
Hire financial auditor Respond to auditor findings
Review financial indicators and ensure adjustments are made Report to board on cash flow, budget to actual, and other key financial measures
Approve investment policies and ensure compliance with regulatory requirements Comply with board-approved financial policies and reporting requirements
Support fundraising activities Work with board to develop and execute fundraising strategy


Board of directors or trustees Executive director or chief executive
Ensure that programs are achieving objectives Develop and implement programs
Provide evidence of program effectiveness


Board of directors or trustees Executive director or chief executive
Hire and evaluate the executive director Hire and supervise all other staff
Approve personnel policies and review salary information Set compensation and benefits for individual employees within organizational policies
Draft grievance and whistleblower policies

Why the leadership relationship matters

An effective leadership team offers various benefits to an organization, such as energy, productivity, links to numerous networks, access to information and improved decision-making.

How the board and the executive director or chief executive interact sets the tone for the entire organization. Modeling a collaborative style that respects different points of view is critical. Of course, a strong relationship is about more than respecting boundaries and sharing information. It involves developing trust in one another.

The board who trusts the executive leader will feel less need to assert authority over him or her. Similarly, the executive leader who trusts the board won't feel the need to keep the board in the dark or at arm's length.

How to support each other

A savvy executive leader takes the time to get to know board members personally when they first join the organization, either by phone or, even better, in person. This is an opportunity to ask questions and uncover expectations. The first conversation should be a candid discussion about expectations, leadership styles and communication preferences.

Whether you're a board member or the executive leader, you might ask these questions at that first meeting:

  • What can I do to support you?
  • What will you value most from me?
  • What are you most afraid of not getting from me?

Then, consider other practical ways to foster an effective relationship:

Board of directors or trustees Executive director or chief executive
Understand the extent of board governance responsibilities Clarify expectations of board members, such as financial support, meeting attendance and volunteer expectations
Trust the executive director or chief executive to run the organization Tell the board what they need to know โ€” and then tell them again, if necessary
Facilitate regular performance evaluations of the executive director or chief executive, including meaningful input from board members and key staff and volunteers Assign specific action items to individual board members



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



CompassPoint: 10 great board chair practices by Marla Cornelius (2016)

Cullinane Law Group: Who's in charge here? Role of the board of directors vs. role of the executive director by Mollie Cullinane (2014)

Governance Matters: Executive director conflict

The Management Center: Executive director performance evaluations

GOV.UK: The essential trustee: What you need to know, what you need to do (2015)

Knowhow Nonprofit: Board responsibilities

Knowhow Nonprofit: The chief executive's relationship with trustees

Nonprofit Risk Management Center: Let's work together: The sweet sounds of a board-CEO partnership by Melanie Lockwood Herman and Erin Gloeckner

Journal for Nonprofit Management: The board chair-executive director relationship: Dynamics that create value for nonprofit organizations by Mary Highland (2008)

Dalhousie University: Managing conflict: A guide for volunteer boards by E. Grant MacDonald


Nonprofit Quarterly: Effective board chair-executive director relationships: Not about roles! by Stephanie Myrie (2006)

The Nonprofit Center: Dynamic duo by Laura Otten (2012)

The Bridgespan Group: Starting off on the right foot: How to establish a good ED-board relationship

IDEA: An organization's board of directors by Elisa Warner

Dot Org Solutions: 10 ways to improve the board, staff relationship in a small nonprofit by Amy Wong



Writer and editor grounded in the nonprofit health care arena