Who is responsible for the Board?

A well-functioning board is an essential part of the ability of the organization to achieve its mission. While most boards do admirable work, there are some concerns I hear from Executive Directors.

  • The board is too inward looking. They need to actively engage as advocates with the broader community.
  • They are not a team. They connect only at board meetings.
  • New members don’t have a clue about what they need to do.
  • The Board Chair does not exercise leadership.
  • Committees rarely meet, and when they do, they accomplish little except to make more work for staff.
  • Board members almost never visit programs or attend program events.
  • They do not utilize their networks to generate support.
  • They spend the board meetings second guessing management decisions.
  • More members attend meetings by conference call then in person.

Creating an effective board requires collaboration of the board leadership and the ED. For some Executive Directors, however, these failures are seen as the responsibility of the board itself:

“They are my boss, it’s not my place to tell them what to do or to do their job for them. I do my job, they should do theirs.”


This approach, however, is a recipe for disaster. It will lead to either organizational failure or the departure of the ED.

Board members come with a passion for the mission but with complex demands on their time and a wide variety of views on how to translate their skills and capacities into appropriate work on the board.

It is the responsibility of the ED to guide them. The ED is the professional in the room. It is not a matter of doing more work but of a shift in approach by the ED towards his or her relationship with the board.

The shift is to begin accepting what is, for me, the key challenge.

How do I manage people that I cannot control?

We have all developed skills to guide and direct people without being controlling.

In the board context, this will involve the ED taking an active role as coach for the Chair who has the primary responsibility for the working of the board.

  • Having regular 1:1 in person meetings with the chair
  • An annual 1:1 meeting with each board member
  • Encouraging new leadership
  • Proposing new board members
  • Providing exciting challenges for the board that enable success

Change is possible but it is the responsibility of the ED. The ED cannot dictate that this happen but he or she can assure that it does by guiding and supporting the chair and the other board leaders

There is simply no one else there to do it.