The CEO's Board Role

In the course of a year, I meet with a lot of boards.  Good boards, bad board, mainly boards that fall somewhere in between.  I’m hired to help them understand their roles and responsibilities and to learn if not quite to love at least not to hate fundraising. Usually—though I admit, not always—I find those who serve on boards to be well meaning, passionate, committed.  They are also often not terribly effective.  Mainly, that is because they do not understand what the job of a board member is.  And generally they don’t understand because (a) they haven’t been told and (b) the CEO of the organization doesn’t do his or her job in managing the board well.

Managing the board can be tricky business.  As a nonprofit CEO (or the CEO of a publically traded for profit) the Board is your boss.  And yet, you must take control of this entity that has the ability to hire—and fire!—you.

As with anyone you manage, their failure is in large part, your failure.  And, as it does with staff, that failure begins, well, at the beginning.

Finding good board members is hard.  Too often we settle for good people.  People with no experience on successful boards; people who really do not want to do the board’s work.

We compound this by not clearing spelling out what the board’s responsibilities are:

  1. To govern, but to do so strategically and not get involved in day-to-day activities.
  2. To have oversight, and to ensure that the work of the organization is done effectively, efficiently, legally, and ethically.
  3. To be a fiduciary and make sure that the organization has the wherewithal to run its mission effectively, efficiently, legally, and ethically
  4. To make sure that the CEO has the resources he or she needs to run the mission effectively, efficiently, etc.  Typically, this means to both give and (help) get funds.  It does not mean look to the CEO or the development director, should there be one, and decide that their (the board’s) fundraising responsibilities are taken care of.

Board members typically do not emerge, understanding these roles.  And too often we spend too much energy talking about the need to be attend board meetings; as if sitting in a chair was the be-all and end-all.

No, it is the job of the CEO, along with Board President and the nominating (or board development) committee, to ensure that there is a board member’s job description, that it accurately reflects what the board member’s responsibilities are, and to make very sure that every prospective board member sees and understands this.

The CEO should also have expectations that the board members individually meet all those expectations and he or she should be working with the Board President to make sure that he or she shares those expectations.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity. Learn how she can help you and your organization at  Where there, sign up for the free newsletter.