The Word "Executive"​ Is Not Silent – Allegory Inc.

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The Word “Executive”​ Is Not Silent

By Christina Harbridge

An Executive Director/President (ED) is the heartbeat of a movement. She channels collective energy, organizes chaos, and manifests strategy, often with little more than duct tape and a bobby pin. She serves to serve and gives for the good of all, taking charge of things in order to improve them.

Despite this nonprofit leader’s clear ability and brilliance, too often board members treat them as inexperienced assistants* to be micromanaged and controlled. This trifling, immaturity, and desire for power can eclipse the talent and outcomes of an entire movement.

Sweeping Away the Grime to Reveal Blue Sky
Does your Board of Directors eclipse nonprofit leadership talent? Image c/o Shutterstock

If you belong to a nonprofit organization’s Board of Directors, check your (and your board’s) behavior against this list with an open curious mind. A board member can have good intent, yet the impact of misaligned-with-role behavior is costly. Ask the ED, and other folks who interact with the board, to rate board members using this list, then go about the business of being a healthy board.

  1. If you belong to a nonprofit organization’s Board of Directors, check your (and your board’s) behavior against this list with an open curious mind. A board member can have good intent, yet the impact of misaligned-with-role behavior is costly. Ask the ED, and other folks who interact with the board, to rate board members using this list, then go about the business of being a healthy board.
  2. Be an accountable asset who follows through on your commitments. The ED directs the board, not the other way around. Board members should be an asset for the ED to use, not people who infantilize her as their mentee. No ED needs puerile advice. Do some tangible work instead. Do what you commit to do without the ED following up.
  3. The ED builds and leads employees, not board members. A board member should never decide which employees/vendors to hire and fire. Too many board members micromanage things they do not have enough nuance to fully understand. A board member may invalidate their board insurance by playing employer.
  4. The ED must be included in the executive session. Include the ED in all conversations about her performance, and notice if any board members whisper opinion that is not actual fact. Some board members turn people on people to gain undeserved power. If any board member talks negatively about the ED instead of directly to her, facilitate a direct conversation or remove them.
  5. Organize and restrain yourself. Too many board members drain limited resources away from the most important work, due to their own emotional fragility. Never use an ED as an aid for your poor memory or instability. Every email you send is a distraction from real work. If you are worried about something, research it first, then put it on the board agenda. Too many board members nibble the ED alive with unexamined worry and questions they can answer themselves with a few minutes of effort.
  6. The Board Chair is responsible for creating a positive, movement-focused culture of the board. They ensure that the board collectively builds momentum for the ED/President. Board chairs must be excellent at direct communication and addressing conflict. If your Board Chair is divisive or gossips about other board members, the ED, or employees, they reduce collective impact. Some people get on boards to gain individual power at the cost of a movement. They use whisper campaigns to divide people. If someone whispers to you, they are also whispering about you, and all of it harms the organization.
  7. Make a living elsewhere. A nonprofit organization exists to serve its own outcomes, not a board member’s wealth. Board members must disclose any financial relationships resulting from their service on the board. Working boards may have compensated positions, which are (or should be) fully disclosed in annual reports and the like. Disclosure will result in healthy term limits and abstaining from voting in some cases.
  8. Too many board members offer tiresome advice instead of coin. Put your money where your mouth is. Fundraise. Not by telling the ED how to do it, but by doing some of it yourself. If you aren’t fundraising, get off the board and help another way. Fundraising is more than writing a single check. Get active in engaging others to support the organization.

It is an honor to serve on a board and most people do so with the intent of helping. Respect to all who volunteer in healthy ways. Any one or more of these seven behaviors can make a board toxic, threatening to derail the most important outcomes of movements and organizations. If you are a board member who has observed and wants to change the nature of your board for the better, start by asking each board member to rate themselves honestly.

Sometimes simply calling attention to the behavior can shift it. If you are an ED or board member who has witnessed or received these behaviors and would like additional help navigating board difficulties, we have resources who can help.

*Assistants have incredible expertise and shouldn’t be micromanaged, either, just say’n

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