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The Most Important Relationship Your Non-Profit Organization Will Ever Have!

08/13/2013 08:53 am ET | Updated Oct 13, 2013

2013-08-13-BE042470.jpgAs with most organizations, relationships are at the heart of any nonprofit's success. That's why the CEO of a great nonprofit has to be a "people person," sensitive to the needs, feelings, interests, goals, and communication styles of all those with whom he or she works, from employees and grantees to volunteers and donors.

But of all these relationships, the single most crucial is the relationship between the CEO and the board chair. When the two work fluidly and gracefully together, like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the movies, there is music in the air: the board members are more engaged, the management team is better aligned, and the donors are happier. But when the relationship breaks down, the entire organization suffers.

Many of the best-performing nonprofits we know have been blessed with magnificent CEO-chair partnerships. I'm thinking of Wendy Kopp and Sue Lehmann in the early days of Teach for America, Marty Strieber and Louise Langer at Peer Health Exchange, and Roger Brown and Jeff Shames at Berklee College of Music.

By contrast, when this key relationship turns sour, institutions can suffer long-term damage. Take the relationship between the rector (board chair) at the University of Virginia and the university President. The partnership between them was so poor that the remainder of the board and management team felt disenfranchised and uninvolved. When the Rector took it upon herself to engineer the president's firing, the stakeholders rallied around the President, who was soon rehired by the rest of the university board. A year later, the university is still repairing relations with the students, faculty, and alumni which were damaged by the dysfunctional CEO-chair relationship.

Joan Garry, a wonderful executive coach to non-profit boards, has written a great piece laying out the ten warning signs of a dysfunctional CEO-chair relationship. Joan understands the power of a strong CEO-chair partnership: "Shared leadership with an invested thought partner with leadership skills can cut so many challenges off at the pass and propel your organization toward the fulfillment of your mission more quickly, more clearly, and more strategically."

Joan is so right. As a board chair and member at many nonprofits, I've participated in both healthy and unhealthy partnerships with the leadership team. When the CEO-chair partnership really works, the chair typically spends between 10 and 30 percent of his or her working hours on the nonprofit, is passionately committed to the cause, and communicates openly and continually with the CEO. The CEO is typically a skilled listener, an enthusiastic cheerleader for the chair's efforts, and has a managed ego, knowing that the goals of the enterprise are more important than his or her personal gratification. The board chairs are typically in the later stages of the careers, while the nonprofit CEOs are in the early/mid stages of theirs, making possible a mentoring relationship that both participants find rewarding and productive.

Other characteristics of a vibrant, healthy CEO-chair relationship include: free, wide-ranging discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of the management team and board members; an open network, in which all contacts of each partner are open and available to the other; and common goal-setting and vision alignment, in which both partners share a common passion about the organization's objectives.

Of course, not every CEO-chair relationship is either completely healthy or hopelessly dysfunctional. Many organizations find themselves stuck in the middle ground, with a board chair who does a decent job running the board meetings and touching base with the CEO but doesn't spend much time with each board member, attracting supporters and resources, or acting as a wise counselor. The result is a nonprofit that is under-leveraged, barely scratching the surface of what it could achieve with a passionately engaged board.

This common failure to take full advantage of the potential value of the board is very unfortunate, since the fact is that nonprofit board members can be much more actively involved in helping the organization achieve its goals than board members in a for-profit company. A for-profit board generally operated in a hands-off, fiduciary fashion, focusing on evaluating the management team's performance and sign off on the strategic initiatives it proposes. In a nonprofit, the board can be true partners of the management team, helping to find resources for the mission and bringing their passions, networks, creativity, and insight to bear for the long-term benefit of the entire organization.

Of course, it's understandable that many nonprofit boards don't produce value to their fullest potential. Being appointed a board chair at a nonprofit doesn't mean that you automatically know how best to serve. While there are many articles and seminars explaining how to set up board committees, design membership policies, and so on, there are very few that address how to enhance the partnership between the board and the management team.

Jennifer McCrea and I -- co-authors of the new book, The Generosity Network -- have taught hundreds of non-profit CEOs and chairs (at New Profit, Ashoka, Draper Richards Kaplan, Skoll World Forum, etc.). We've found that most chairs want to be more constructive and helpful to their CEOs but simply don't know how. They lack training other than that provided by their predecessor as chair, who may or may not have been a good role model.

As a result, many new board chairs flounder. Some who have business backgrounds get too involved in micromanaging the nonprofit's everyday activities (often with the avowed goal of "bringing in smart business practices"). Others just passively follow the lead of the CEO, assuming they don't have the non-profit skills they need to be more involved. Both of these viewpoints are wrong. The key is for the chair to serve as an actively engaged advisor and partner while remembering that the CEO still runs the organization. However, the shared passion and commitment of the CEO and chair working together and energizing the full array of stakeholder groups can create a leverageable, unified model for successfully addressing the organization's objectives.

What can be done to improve the CEO-chair relationship? One useful step would be the creation of opportunities for deeper dialogue between CEOs and board chairs. I'm imagining small group forums with 15 to 25 participants. The conversations would be focused not on such typical questions as "Should there be term limits on board membership?" "Should there be a give or get policy?" or "What board committees of the board should there be?" but rather on deeper questions like, "How can we better motivate each board member to support our mission?" and "How can we engage in more open and honest discussions about how to take the organization to a higher level of performance?" Such great organizations as New Profit, Draper Richards Kaplan, and Boardsource have already started some of these CEO-chair dialogues. More experimentation along these lines is needed.

What are your thoughts? Leave them here and check out The Generosity Network.

Photo from Corbis Images