The Board-Staff Partnership

The partnership between the board and the executive leader is critically important to the success of an organization.


A strong and healthy board-staff partnership provides flexible and resilient leadership that contributes positively to the organization’s overall impact. A weak or dysfunctional partnership impedes the effectiveness of both the board and the executive, and puts the organization at risk in a number of ways – lack of strategic alignment or direction, executive turnover, a toxic organizational culture; the list could go on and on.

To cultivate the trust, respect, candor, and communication that characterize a healthy partnership between a board and staff, BoardSource recommends a number of key practices, including the following:

  • Regular check-ins between the executive and chair. Open and consistent communication channels between the executive and the board chair help build a strong working relationship and surface issues and challenges before they get bigger.
  • A commitment to “no surprises.” For both the executive and the board, it’s important to share openly and honestly, including when there’s bad news. This is especially important between the executive and the chair, who set the tone for the relationship between the executive and the board as a whole.
  • Thoughtful reflection on performance. One of the board’s essential responsibilities is to annually evaluate the executive’s performance and provide honest feedback on successes and challenges. Equally important, however, is that the board assesses its own performance. In addition to helping strengthen board performance, it demonstrates the board’s commitment to shared leadership and responsibility.

The resources listed below provide guidance on how to develop and maintain meaningful and results-oriented board chair–executive, board–executive, and board–staff partnerships, as well as how to navigate thorny issues such as micromanagement.

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Guides, Tools, Templates, and Infographics


Written Resources

All 101-level topical resources listed below are available publicly. BoardSource members have access to 101, 201, and 301- level resources. Don’t forget to visit the BoardSource store for more resources and training on this topic.

A Nonprofit Board’s Dynamics and Processes — FAQs

101| Community resource. Have a question about board processes and dynamics? Check here. For easy reference, we’ve compiled the answers to questions we’re frequently asked into one resource.

Addressing Staff Complaints

201| Members only resource. It is not unusual for unhappy or troubled staff members to contact board members directly about management concerns. How should you address this approach?

Advisory Councils — Nine Keys to Success

201| Members only resource. Executive sessions provide an opportunity for the board to meet in private. As they normally are closed meetings, often restricted only to board members, it is advisable to set straightforward rules and communicate openly their function and purpose.

Boards That Micromanage

201| Members only resource. It is not always easy for a board to see the line between management and governance. Board members need to consider themselves overseers, not implementers. When boards overstep the line between governance and management they can easily become micromanagers.

Chief Executive Performance Evaluation

201| Members only resource. The board delegates the management and administrative duties to the chief executive. To ensure that the right person is running the operations assumes that regular performance reviews take place.

Chief Executive’s Fundraising Responsibilities

201| Members only resource. The board has the responsibility of ensuring the existence of adequate resources for the organization. However, the board alone should not and cannot handle all fundraising activities. The chief executive takes the leadership role in development planning and engagement of all key individuals. In this brief paper, we introduce you to the chief executive’s fundraising responsibilities.

Co-Chief Executives

201| Members only resource. Some organizations traditionally divide the executive leadership duties among two or more individuals. Others choose this option as an innovative way to structure management or to get through a strenuous period before the right person is found to manage the operations. Co-executive leadership­, however, does not come without challenges. Duties and relationships need special attention. Both chief executives and the board must feel comfortable about the arrangement.

Dividing Duties Between Board and Staff

201| Members only resource. As soon as it is feasible, most boards designate or hire their first chief executive who then manages the daily affairs. The chief executive reports to the board and other staff hired later on report to the chief executive. The structure defines accountability but everyone working together for the same objective is what makes these partnerships succeed.

Executive Sessions for Nonprofit Boards

101| Community resource. Executive sessions are closed or special meetings-within-a-meeting that provide an opportunity for the board to convene privately to handle sensitive and confidential issues, foster robust discourse, and strengthen trust and communication.

Giving & Receiving Feedback

101| Community resource. This resource outlines five tips for chief executives and board chairs working to build a strong partnership.

Good Habits of an Effective Board Chair

201| Members only resource. Serving as the chair of the board is not a role for the indolent and undecided. To accept the responsibility to be in charge of a nonprofit board and to serve as an effective leader — not just a figurehead — assumes that the chair possesses the characteristics and conduct that make the job produce results.

Nonprofit Board Members Applying for Staff Positions

201| Members-only resource. It is not unusual for a board member to be interested in a staff opening in an organization. The board member may feel that she has the necessary skills and previous experience with this nonprofit. However, when a board member wants to move from governance to management or administration, it is important to follow fair hiring procedures and avoid any preferential treatment.

Performance Goals for the Chief Executive

101| Community resource. Clarifying performance goals is essential for both employees and supervisors. The position of chief executive of a nonprofit is no exception. Since one of the key tasks a board has is to evaluate the chief executive’s performance annually, it is important that a mutual understanding and agreement of the anticipated accomplishments exists between the board and the chief executive.

Reimagining Boards for High Impact

101| Community resource. What if leaders could grow their impact without growing their organizations? Read six primary areas where boards can focus their energy to strengthen community relationships and dramatically increase their impact.

Rubber-Stamping Boards

201| Members only resource. In strong boards, members comprehend their role as the fundamental unit guiding the organization. In some weak boards, individual board members seem oblivious to their specific expectations and obligations and are content to be led by others. When the entire board is complacent — a bit too comfortable with status quo or too submissive to authoritarian rule — a potentially detrimental situation threatens the organization as well as individual board members.

Sabbaticals in a Nonprofit

201| Members only resource. In addition to general leaves for all staff, the board can award special sabbaticals to the chief executive. Some boards also question whether allowing board members to take time off would provide benefit the organization or simply create insurmountable legal concerns.

Sharing Authority in a Nonprofit

201| Members only resource. The decision-making power in a nonprofit organization is shared by different entities. The full board resides at the top of the authority pyramid but it is neither realistic — nor desirable — for this group to make every single decision within every organizational activity.

Staffing a New Organization

201 | Members-only resource. Most nonprofits start as all-volunteer organizations. However, the time will come when hiring staff is a must. This can liberate the board and allow it to focus on its primary governance responsibilities, but it can also challenge the board in its new supervisory role.

The Role of the Former Chief Executive

201| Members only resource. There are many ways to keep former board members involved in a nonprofit, but it is more difficult to define the role of a departing chief executive. Is it appropriate to invite them to stay in close contact? Should a former chief executive join the board? Before answering these questions, it is wise to clarify the relationship between the former chief executive, the new chief executive, and the board.

Transitioning from Working Board to Governing Board

201| Members only resource. If an organization grows as hoped and planned for, a “working board” will eventually reach a point when it’s time to transfer the organization’s management, administration, and operations to staff and staff-led volunteers.