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Mary Hiland, PhD

About Mary

New Insights into the Board Chair-ED Relationship

Nonprofit leaders are reported to influence the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations, but little is known about the nature and extent of that influence. This is particularly true of the board chair-executive director (BC/ED) leadership partnership. If you pick up a book on nonprofit governance, it is more likely than not that you will find a statement to the effect that the BC/ED relationship is “critical” to the organization. While this seems intuitively correct, do we really know? And, if it is true, in what ways is the relationship influencing the organization?

What do we know?

A literature review revealed only one published study dealing with the BC/ED relationship. That study found three themes about what made the BC/ED relationship strong: trust, communication, and maintaining a balance between management and governance (Millesen, J., 2004, The Nonprofit Quarterly, Winter). Recent reports on anticipated executive director transitions have cited tensions with the board as a reason executives leave nonprofit organizations (Bell, J. & Wolfred, T., 2006, Daring to Lead 2006: A national study of nonprofit executive leadership. CompassPoint Nonprofit Services). We clearly need a deeper understanding of the relationships “at the top” if the sector is going to attract the leaders it needs.

A recent study

Motivated by these concerns, I recently completed a study of the BC/ED relationship that explored BC/ED interpersonal dynamics and their effect on nonprofit organizations (supported in part by Fielding Graduate University). The organizational effect was considered using the concept of social capital. Social capital is the asset that is available to an organization because of relationships. Higher levels of social capital have been related to improved organizational performance. Nonprofit organizations depend on relationships. The larger and more diverse the network of relationships, the more social capital is available to the organization to achieve its goals. The study found that two aspects of the BC/ED relationship dynamics: the focus of what they work on together and the strength of trust in their relationship were related to creating social capital.

There were three patterns in BC/ED descriptions of what they worked on together. The first was a focus on internal operations: finances, personnel, and work on the board (as compared to working with the board). I call these the “managing” pairs. The next pattern involved the board chair and ED managing but in addition being engaged with their boards on some strategic issue. I call these pairs the “planning” pairs. The last pattern was evident in pairs who were managing and planning, but also actively working with their boards to engage the larger community. These pairs were the “leading” pairs.

The strength of trust in each relationship was reflected by the number of different trust-building behaviors practiced. (The study identified 19 different trust-building behaviors.) There was a positive relationship between the strength of trust, the pattern of working together, and the creation of social capital – i.e. the leading pairs had the strongest trust and generated the most social capital while the managing pairs had the least trust and generated little social capital.

Include a focus on the relationship

All of the board chairs and EDs in the study believed they had a positive or very positive relationship. The experiences they shared, however, pointed out important distinctions in the quality of the relationships that had implications for them and the organizations they served. One executive director noted, “You forget it’s a relationship.” I found an understandable tendency for several of the board chairs and EDs to focus on tasks—the work of the organization. They were working in relationship but not on their relationship. Those pairs that were doing both accrued many benefits for their nonprofits as the result of the social capital they helped generate.

The BC/ED relationship is a powerful resource that can be leveraged in support of a nonprofit’s mission. Building this relationship is an important part of nonprofit leaders’ work. The study provided some insights into why, but it is just a first step. Clearly, the sector could benefit from more evidence-based insights into the dynamics of nonprofit leadership relationships and their effects on organizations.


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