By Nick Price
Best practices for governance give us some general guidelines about the expectations for the individual who serves in the role of executive director. The guidelines are broad because every organization has different and unique needs. A one-size-fits-all approach to the definition of the role of executive director rarely serves any organization well.
The board chair and the executive director nearly always have a close working relationship with each other because they work together on most activities of the organization. As with most close working relationships, the organization benefits when the board chair and the executive director understand and abide by their distinct roles and have a mutually trusting relationship.
The distinction between the roles of the board and executive director is part of good governance
Good governance requires accountability. Accountability requires that all parties have a specific job description and the organization outlines the duties that they expect individuals in each role to perform. The broad explanation of duties is that the board and its chair are largely responsible for oversight, risk management and strategic planning. The executive director and his staff are largely responsible for implementing the board’s plans and managing the daily activities of the organization.
There is some room for flexibility within the roles. The key to maintaining clarification between the roles is having written descriptions of duties and responsibilities and maintaining clear communications between the board and the executive director.
How does the role of the board differ from that of the executive director?
It’s important to remember that the board is responsible for all governance activities, including overseeing legal issues, financial issues, and issues related to people and programs. This responsibility requires all board members to perform their board duties in ways that ensure legal and ethical integrity and also ensures the public trust.
A board of directors has many legal and fiduciary responsibilities. They must know and understand all applicable state, federal and local laws that pertain to the organization. The board also provides legal oversight in all areas and relays pertinent legal information to the executive director and staff as needed.
The board makes sure that the operations of the organization stay aligned with the mission, vision and values of the organization. This is important for organizations that have tax-exempt status because they must continue to operate under the same purpose for which the government granted them nonprofit status.
The board’s governance duties include proper oversight over the executive director and the management of the organization’s activities. The board of directors selects and hires the executive director, writes the job description and duties, and assesses the individual’s performance.
The board must make sure that the executive director is running the organization well and within the purpose and mission of the entity. The board has the right and responsibility to remove low-performing executive directors.
As part of their oversight duties, the board of directors is responsible for creating and approving an annual budget and making sure that the executive director has the financial resources to further the organization’s mission.
What are the duties and responsibilities of the executive director?
The board chair typically serves as the liaison between the board and management. It’s common, though not required, for the executive director to attend board meetings to stay in the loop of board business. Whether the executive director attends board meetings or not, the role requires keeping the board informed about what the staff and volunteers are doing. It’s important for the executive director to provide the board with feedback on progress toward achieving goals for the strategic plan and any budget needed to fulfill the expected duties.
The executive director’s exact duties and responsibilities may vary somewhat, depending on their job description. Generally, executive directors accept direct responsibility for executing the organization’s policies, programs and initiatives. Here is a template for a job description for an executive director.
Executive directors manage all of the day-to-day responsibilities of the organization, including managing staff and volunteers. Working with staff, the executive director develops policies to inform the various programs as they work toward fulfilling the organization’s charitable purpose.
Another important duty of the executive director is to serve as the face and public spokesperson for the organization. Executive directors often make public presentations to the media, members, donors, government representatives and members of the community at large.
The role usually requires many hours outside of the office, as they often attend or host fundraising events, public relations events and events for various organizational programs.
The importance of the executive director’s role requires that the board choose someone who is a person with high ethical and moral standards, and who has a spotless reputation. Most executive directors aren’t really ever off-duty, even when they’re off-the-clock.
Some organizations find it helpful for the board chair and the executive director to share some responsibilities. Such shared duties often include developing an overall fundraising plan, reviewing the budget and assessing whether the organization is staying true to its mission.
The executive directorship requires a trusted relationship with the board chair
The health of every organization depends on the relationship between the executive director and the board chair. Some organizations find that it works best to clarify their respective roles, duties and responsibilities right from the start. Others find it works better for them to work out the finer points of their responsibilities as they go. In most cases, both parties allow for some degree of flexibility in defining roles and expectations.
Relationships take time to build and nurture. Board chairs and executive directors who are mutually reasonable give their relationship time to grow. In time, trust will develop trust between the board and executive directors.
How much interaction the executive director has with the board also varies substantially based on their relationship. In a high-trust relationship, an executive director may welcome the board chair to interact regularly and directly with staff and volunteers.
A board chair can directly influence staff by coaching them on the organization’s strategy and culture, as well as how to successfully shape the business model. A board chair who highly trusts the executive director won’t feel the need to assert unnecessary authority over the executive director.
In organizations where trust is low, increased structure, either temporarily or permanently, will help to lessen gaps in responsibilities.