Pulse of Philanthropy: A Nonprofit’s Most Important Relationship

by BRET BICOY, President and CEO, Door County Community Foundation

A few months ago, I wrote about the modest, but strategically important differences between nonprofit leaders who serve as a president and CEO versus those who are an executive director (“Understanding Nonprofit Titles,” March 9 issue of the Peninsula Pulse). More recently, I’ve been asked to comment on the roles of a charity’s board chair and its president and CEO.

Perhaps the best explanation I’ve heard has to do with focus. The board chair is internally focused. That person’s most important role is to foster good decision-making among the members of the board. The highly regarded board-training nonprofit BoardSource explains that “the primary responsibility of the board chair is to lead the board by engaging individual board members to work as a unit.” A good chair is a strategist who structures board conversations in a way that optimizes outcomes. The chair doesn’t make the decision; instead, the chair creates the conditions under which the board as a whole can make a good decision.

The CEO is externally focused. That sounds a bit counterintuitive. All employees of an organization report to the CEO (or to one of that person’s subordinates), so one would think that the CEO’s role is internally focused. However, the CEO’s responsibility is to marshal the organization’s resources to serve the community in the most efficient and impactful way. A CEO’s focus should be on those whom the organization serves.

Typically, the health of the relationship between the board chair and the CEO has a greater impact on the success or failure of a nonprofit than any other relationship. When trust is lacking and communication is breaking down, it can become impossible to align all of the organization’s resources so that everyone is moving in the same direction.

As BoardSource notes, “The board chair’s partnership with the CEO is the most important relationship he or she will have. An organization does not succeed if its two key leaders are not working collaboratively and fail to develop a culture of mutual respect and trust.”

Virtually every nonprofit resource describes the board chair and CEO as partners in fulfilling the nonprofit’s mission. However, there is one unusual aspect of this partnership.

Cynder Sinclair, Ph.D., of the consulting firm Nonprofit Kinect, points out that “it’s important to note that the [chief] executive [officer] is hired by and reports to the board as a whole body. The board chair is a partner with the executive but not the executive’s supervisor.” 

Although the board chair does not supervise the CEO, the board chair does sometimes serve as the voice of the board when conveying messages to the CEO – and the board as a whole supervises the CEO. So there is this unusual dynamic in which the board chair and CEO are partners, but when the board chair is carrying a message from the entire board, at that moment, the chair is also the CEO’s de facto supervisor. 

Regardless, both the board chair and CEO must have a fanatical commitment to consistent, open communication. At the Door County Community Foundation, the first call I make on any important issue is to our board chair, Jeff Ottum, even though a decision may be mine to make as CEO. Good board chairs were elected by their peers presumably because they are smart and strategic thinkers. The board chair should be the CEO’s most trusted partner and a source of wisdom and counsel.

Similarly, if I’ve screwed something up or am confronting a problem that has the potential to explode and go terribly wrong, the board chair will know about it. Being open with my concerns engenders trust: If we’re going to fix something that’s broken, we need to work together.

At the Community Foundation, the relationship I have with our board chair is so important that we’ve created a Governance Committee that also includes our past chair and vice chair. We meet quarterly, even if there is no issue on the table, just to ensure that there is a robust, open channel between the CEO and the board leadership. It also helps to acclimate the new vice chair to the relational culture that has been so important to our success.

One final caveat: Although good communication is essential regardless of titles, this column is about the roles of a president and CEO and a board chair. In an organization that has an executive director and a board president, depending on its corporate structure, the board president may be the principal officer as defined in state statute. In that case, the board president might directly supervise the executive director.

Contact Bret Bicoy at [email protected].