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From the Board Doctor
7/22/2016 12:00 AM

This cautionary tale shows executive directors why it is important to know your board members as individuals and understand their needs.

Something as simple as a board member’s ego nearly cost a California nonprofit executive her job recently. This story from the Hotline is a good reminder of how important it is for the executive director to know his board members well and meet their personal board-service needs. Here’s what happened:

“My board chair forced through a bylaws change, and as a result of that, micromanagement became rampant around here,” she said. The problems at the organization spun out of control so quickly that a state oversight agency eventually became involved and demanded that the bylaws be revised again to fix the problems, she said.

This organization had been performing well, and the administrator was meeting the board’s goals for the nonprofit. “My board was giving me a lot of credit for the agency’s success, and I was trying to give the board its due credit as well,” the California executive said.

“My problem was that my board chair felt left out when the credit was being handed out,” she said.

Problems escalated rapidly at that point, and the executive still remembers how upsetting it was when another board member told her the chair “planned to take her down a notch.”

The chair started orchestrating employee complaints. “He really ramped up the tension when he had one of those employees trump up some serious charges against me,” she said. “At that point, the chair tried to relieve me of my duties.”

The organization’s bylaws prevented this unilateral move by the chair, so the chair made the necessary moves to change the bylaws to give himself the necessary power to act. In fact, the chair made himself CEO of the nonprofit, the California executive said.

To achieve this, the chair scheduled board meetings when many board members could not attend, and insisted that he didn’t need a majority of the board present at the meetings to install himself as the CEO, but only a majority at the meeting to vote him in as chair, the administrator said.

It took a year to get this situation reversed, and only after many nightmarish meetings and damage to the nonprofit. “He used intimidation and yelling to run off key employees during this year,” she said.

What did the California executive learn from this fiasco? “Strengthen your bylaws by making a supermajority of the board a requirement to alter them,” she said.

While that may or may not be a good idea for your organization, this story illustrates a key point about the board and administrator relationship: Nonprofit executives need to spend a great deal of time building a personal relationship with each board member. If the California nonprofit executive had better understood that she had a board chair with a massive ego that needed stroking, maybe the damage to the organization could have been prevented.

Successful administrators don’t leave much to chance when it comes to relationships with their board members. They make conscious efforts to know each board member’s needs and interests — and then meet them.


Jeff Stratton, Editor


Board Relationship
7/8/2016 12:00 AM

Read advice from nonprofit experts about working through board problems in this Board & Administrator feature.

At times, the nonprofit executive will be the bearer of bad news to the board or the board will have a nonperforming member it must confront.

If the executive director faces a difficult issue with the board or with an individual board member, what is the best approach for surviving unscathed?

Nonprofit executives and board consultants share their thoughts on this topic:

Tricia Dell, a fundraising coach, facilitator and strategist in the San Francisco Bay area ( suggests creating an anonymous online survey for board members with two or three questions that require going deeper with thinking about the issue the board faces.

“Have the chair compile the data for discussion at the next board meeting,” Dell said.

Marilyn Donnellan, founder emeritus of Nonprofit Management Services LLC, said the administrator first needs to assess whether she is facing a problem with one board member or with the board as a whole.

Depending on the circumstances, it can be better if the conversation is initiated by another trusted board member rather than “staff” in the form of the executive director, said Donnellan (Leesburg, Ind.;

If the executive does have that difficult discussion with board members, practice active listening to get the most benefit from what the board is thinking, she said.

Gary VanDyke, president and founder of Food for Orphans (Colorado Springs, Colo.;, said it is important that the executive director not avoid the difficult subject with his board. But he can’t start with the difficult conversation either.

“There must be a history of candid conversations and genuine openness before the difficult subjects are tackled,” VanDyke said. “You also need to get to know the directors so that these conversations can be wisely managed.”

Once you know how board members might react to troubling news, then you know what path to take when bringing up a difficult subject, he said. “Some people are able to handle direct confrontation, while others must be finessed wisely,” VanDyke said.

Consultant Susan Detwiler (Wilmington, Del.; said don’t think “board” when dealing with a difficult issue. “A common error is to use the term ‘board’ when you really mean ‘board members,’” she said.

“Each person on the board is an individual and will hear you differently,” Detwiler said. You need to factor in the background of the individual board member and the trust level you’ve developed with her, she said.

If the CEO faces a catastrophic issue (such as forgetting to pay payroll taxes or losing a major benefactor), that is truly a difficult conversation in the making, Detwiler said. “Start by considering the individual board member and how they will best hear this information,” she said. “Peer-to-peer conversations are helpful, so starting with one or two trusted board members may be best.”

Your board allies can introduce the subject to the rest of the board and support you as it is discussed, Detwiler said.

Board Relationship
7/5/2016 12:00 AM

Board consultant Carol Weisman gives tips on how to succeed as a nonprofit CEO in this feature from Board & Administrator.

Nobody wants to fail. It can lead to job loss and a decline in professional stature, and can be very difficult emotionally for the nonprofit executive.

Board consultant Carol Weisman ( has worked with more nonprofits than she can count. She’s seen executive directors come and go over the years and gained valuable insights into why the nonprofit CEO fails.

Here are Weisman’s lessons learned about executive director failure and how to prevent it from happening to you:

  1. The top executive isn’t learned in fundraising strategy and receives no training. Weisman cites a recent study by Amy Eisenstein that concluded that if the nonprofit’s CEO or development professional receive training, the organization raises $37,000 more annually on average.
  2. “What you find with executive directors is that they are industry experts,” Weisman said. They might have been a banker who cares about children, a parent who has lost a child, or a scientist, she said.

    “But they have no fundraising experience,” Wesiman said. They then walk into their new job at a nonprofit and find out there is no development director in the organization and receive the shock of their lives, she said.

    “You have to get training in fundraising,” she said.

    The training the administrator should seek is similar to the training a board member should have—but with additional background information on issues such as budgeting for a capital campaign, feasibility studies and fundraising software, Weisman said.

  3. A poor relationship with the board chair. For Weisman, what’s key to an effective relationship with the board is a great relationship with your board chair.
  4. “One of the things I preach is the need for a ‘prenuptial’ agreement between the executive director and the chair,” she said.

    The agreement should be a verbal one and specify how often the two will meet, the types of information the chair wants to receive, how each party defines an emergency and issues surrounding what is “personal time” for each person.

    Other issues important to your chair can arise from this type of conversation as well. Weisman spoke with an executive director who didn’t want to have meetings that involved alcohol due to personal struggles with it. “That is a very personal type of conversation,” she said.

    An example of personal boundaries and time: When Weisman served as chair of a board, she told the executive director that if he wanted to call Weisman by 5:30 a.m., that was fine. But by 9:00 p.m., Weisman preferred not to be disturbed. The executive director said he was recently separated from his wife and had his kids on weekends and Wednesday nights. He asked Weisman not to call during these times.

    The “prenuptial” should be verbal, Weisman said, because it gives you and the chair a chance to really talk through the issues. “There needs to be some give-and-take, some compromising, and this needs to be done verbally,” she said.

    “Have this meeting in person and not over the telephone, so you can negotiate,” Weisman said. “Also be sure to ask for your chair’s pet peeves, along with nailing down communication preferences such as email, text or phone contact.”

  5. Unrealistic expectations on the part of the board. Boards have a tendency to say things such as “We are going to see revenue increase by 25% next year” and leave their executive director speechless, Weisman said.
  6. When working for a board like this, Weisman said, it pays to be direct. “When boards say something along these lines, I turn it back on them and ask how much it would cost to raise their bottom line by 25% in one year,” she said. Then Weisman asks why the board member thinks that something that would be too pricey in their business will work for the nonprofit.

    It can pay to bring in an outsider to make points like this to the board, Weisman said. You need someone the board will respect but that can be direct with them as well. “We usually have a conversation like this and it works because I really want to know why they think something can work at the nonprofit but not their business,” she said.

  7. The issue of the board and fundraising. This is where the expectations of the executive director are often set unrealistically. Board members haven’t been trained to fundraise, but the CEO still expects them to do it, Weisman said.
  8. “If you work in a hospital, you can’t even empty the trash without training,” she said. “In the nonprofit world, we take highly successful people and ask them to fundraise without training. We set up board members to fail and that’s not nice.”

    A similar issue with fundraising expectations that are out of whack occurs with small and midsized organizations, Weisman said. “Executives often expect to receive the same level of gifts that people give to larger organizations,” she said.

    Weisman once had a client who was spitting mad because her board chair gave a very sizeable gift to a prominent organization but a much smaller one to the organization where he was chair.

    “It can take years to build up the kind of trust to secure a very large gift,” Weisman said.

    Executive directors sometimes assume that a C-suite person in a business on their board can get company funds for their organization. “There are just too many issues in play to assume this,” she said. “You may have a controversial cause or serve a small population, and a corporation may not choose to get involved in your cause. They already have a philanthropic portfolio and you may not be in it.”

  9. Executive director “burnout.” The executive director should make it a personal priority to step away from the front lines and feed his or her soul, Weisman said.
  10. That’s because executive directors often face very difficult choices in their position. An example from Weisman: Let’s say you have two calls come in, one from a donor and one from a family member of someone you serve. Which call do you take first?

    Doing your job properly means you take the donor’s call, Weisman said, if you have a good staff that can handle the family concern. “This burns people out—getting pulled in two directions,” she said.

    The burnout issue can be fixed by setting goals and boundaries, Weisman said. Have lunch once a week with your donor and call donors first thing in the morning and last thing before you head home, she said. Then every single morning have coffee with clients in your sheltered workshop. “By doing this, you give yourself some metrics,” Weisman said. “You make your donor calls, and then go back to your mission self.”

6/17/2016 12:00 AM

These Board & Administrator guidelines clarify board responsibilities and duties for advisory committees to prevent role misunderstandings.

Advisory committee members, as well as board members, need help in understanding the purpose of an advisory committee. Use the following guidelines to clarify the purpose of your advisory committees.

Board committees: The board shall approve all matters pertaining to the business and policies of the organization. The board may appoint standing committees; however, no individual member or group composed of less than the full membership of the board shall exercise the powers of the full board.

Temporary ad hoc and/or advisory committees: With the approval and direction of the board, the chair of the board may appoint ad hoc and/or advisory committees to assist the board.

The following guidelines shall apply to all temporary ad hoc or advisory committees:

Committees shall be appointed for a specific and well-defined purpose. Their authority shall be limited to the task assigned to them by the board.

All committees shall be fact-finding or advisory in nature and possess no executive powers. Committees and committee members shall have no power to make monetary or other decisions for the board.

The board will provide such committees with a meeting place. The executive director shall provide these committees with an administrative presence. The administrator or his/her designee shall be a member of all committees.

All reports of any temporary committee shall be made to the board and executive director.

Ad hoc or advisory committees shall be dissolved upon completion of their assigned tasks.

Final authority in the decision-making process will reside with the board.

Standing rules:

The purpose of any advisory committee shall be to: (1) advise and comment to the board concerning the conduct of the organization’s services, structure and policy; (2) inform the community of services offered by the organization; (3) assist a specified office or program with community relations, marketing and fundraising, and provide other support as appropriate; and (4) provide consultation and direction on the development of resources.


The chairperson shall preside at all meetings of the advisory committee and shall be responsible for informing the advisory committee of projects and programs established by the board.


Upon recommendation of the advisory committee, a member of the advisory committee shall be appointed by the chairperson of the board to serve as liaison with the board. Where applicable, an advisory committee member who is also a member of the board will serve as the liaison. The liaison shall be responsible for the flow of information between the two bodies. The liaison will provide a written report of the advisory committee’s activity to the board as needed.


The advisory committee will meet only as needed to study assigned issues. The time, date and place of the meetings will be determined by the advisory committee.

4/1/2016 12:00 AM

Use this Board & Administrator post-meeting evaluation form to ask board members to assess their work.

3/25/2016 12:00 AM

Develop a roles and responsibilities chart to teach nonprofit board members to focus on policy.

Sometimes the nonprofit executive must be a mind reader.

That’s because nonprofit board members can be really hard to figure out. Sometimes they want complete authority over decisions. And other times they look at you as if to say, “Why didn’t you just go ahead and do this? It’s your responsibility!” That’s where the talent for mind reading becomes a career necessity.

Yes, ideally the board makes policy decisions and stays out of your management decisions. But rarely are things so cut and dried. That’s because there are three real-world problems that can make your decision-making dicey:

  1. Many board members don’t know their proper responsibilities, even after they have been oriented and trained. So they don’t know which decisions are the board’s and which belong to you.
  2. There are plenty of gray areas where responsibility is not clear.
  3. A board has the power to make any decision it wants to — right or wrong.

What the nonprofit needs is a clear-cut list of responsibilities for both board members and the administrator. That way, board members will know their own responsibilities — and respect yours. Who does exactly what isn’t really the key issue here. What’s vital is that everyone on the board and administrator team discusses and then agrees who will be responsible for what — and sticks to the agreement.

If you and your board make the time to develop a decision-making chart, you should see a positive effect on board meetings. Once the board has specified who will make decisions, meetings should become shorter and smoother because everything has been sorted out in advance.

As a team, the board and administrator should decide who is responsible for making each decision. Be sure to tell your board where you think you should be responsible, but be willing to live with their consensus — even if you don’t agree.

Note: I’ve listed a few responsibilities below to help you and your board get started. But be sure to customize this list to your own organization and the types of decisions you typically face.

When developing your own list, you will have a good opportunity to discuss board responsibilities. Give your board some guidelines, such as the following:

  • The board handles the “what” — such as our organization will provide a new program. The executive handles how the policy will be implemented — such as who will staff the new service, where and when.
  • The board makes decisions that set the direction for the entire organization. The executive makes decisions that affect individuals.
  • Law often dictates who must make a decision.

Responsibility Chart for the Administrator and Board

Label each item with one of the following:

A = Administrator has complete authority to make the decision.

I = Administrator has authority to act and then inform the board.

P = Administrator must seek prior approval from the board to act.

B = Board must make the decision.

  1. Write a grant proposal.
  2. Submit a grant to a funding source.
  3. Discipline an employee who comes to work intoxicated.
  4. Change board-meeting times or frequencies.
  5. Purchase new computers with budgeted funds.
  6. Set minimum salary for new staff.
  7. Determine rules for staff dress.
  8. Terminate a supervisor’s contract.
  9. Accept audit of the organization’s finances.
  10. Appoint people to an advisory committee to advise the administrator about community needs.

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  • Meet the Editor

    Jeff Stratton

    Jeff Stratton has edited Board & Administrator since 1992. As the Board Doctor, he has advised thousands of executive directors and board members on issues like prevention of
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