Running a not-for-profit can be difficult even in the best of times. But when times are tough, the stress of the executive director’s job can be crushing. It’s no wonder that idealism often gives way to burnout.
That’s where the board comes in. it can be an important buffer against the pressures facing the chief executive. Here are some ways the board can underscore its commitment to supporting the executive director:
Observe the rules of the relationship. Many problems between boards and executive directors stem from confusion about roles and responsibilities – confusion that can be avoided. The board has very specific duties that are distinct from the executive director’s – since, the board governs and the director manages.
Still, every not-for-profit needs written guidelines defining the roles of both parties. Executive directors may also need to help board members, particularly new ones, understand ways in which they can be supportive.
Provide additional resources. Every executive director has a wish list, although it may be impossible to realize. But they also have relatively simple needs that boards can help them meet. For instance, they may want more management or administrative assistance, maybe to complete a short-term project or prepare for an event.
Offer to assist. Sometimes a board member can help out – perhaps by taking the initiative to contact a foundation about a grant application or organizing a fund-raiser such as a golf tournament.
Another way to provide assistance is to authorize a temporary worker for extra administrative support. When feasible, board members should go the extra mile to offer targeted resources that can help smooth over the rough patches.
All the executive director to shape – but not control – the agenda. Boards will want to give the executive director ample opportunity to guide the board to a true governance role by helping determine that issues that board should address.
Although boards want to guard against being just an audience or a rubber stamp, they should recognize that executive directors are close to the organization’s needs and that most have its best interests at heart.
So while boards don’t want to completely relinquish the agenda to their executive director, they do want to ensure that they get input from the executive. Otherwise, the relationships will seem more like a subordinate one than a partnership.
Help find solutions. Boards should create an environment that invites the executive director to seek the board’s help when he or she doesn’t have time to solve a problem or simply can’t solve it alone. The executive director’s satisfaction with the board will ultimately depend on whether he or she feels that its members willingly and effectively step up to the plate when needed.
Provide development opportunities. Although budges are tight, try to offer your executive director formal and informal opportunities for professional development and networking. Activities such as attending conferences, participating in professional groups and taking courses all tend to have a revitalizing effect, enabling one to return to the job with fresh insights and renewed enthusiasm.
Not surprisingly, surveys have found that the board is a key factor in how satisfied executive directors are with their positions and also how long they stay in them. Boards will want to do their part, therefore, to be as supportive as possible, both personally and professionally.
In turn, executive directors owe it to their boards to maintain open communication and to call upon them when help is needed.