How to Strengthen the Nonprofit Board Chair – CEO Relationship

nonprofit board chair ceo relationship

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My wife quit her job once and forgot to tell me.

I had a sense she was unhappy, but quitting wasn’t something she had mentioned. And it wasn’t like a gig at Home Depot. She was our primary breadwinner. A big TV executive.

And it’s not like we didn’t communicate – we did. Well and often. Several times a day. About grocery lists and weekend visits to see my mom. The typical “weeds” of running a household. But that big tree in the forest? We never actually made time to talk about that.

We both learned. I learned to ask more. We both learned about the value of longer, big picture conversations.

Except for the dog she sprung on me, there haven’t been surprises since.

I bet something like this has happened to you at some point. You overhear your significant other telling somebody something monumental and think, “How could I not know this?”

What we have here is a failure to communicate. It happens. Even in the best of relationships.

And when it comes to nonprofits, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face. The single best sign of a healthy nonprofit is a strong relationship between the Board Chair and the CEO.

If you’re not sure you agree, go click on the link above and then come back here. Perhaps I’ll have convinced you.

But either way, I think we can agree that every nonprofit wants a strong partnership between the staff and the board. And that starts at the top.

I help nonprofits in a lot of different ways. One of those ways is to help the Board Chair and Executive Director set a standing agenda that facilitates strong and productive communication.

Today, I’d like to share my standard agenda structure with you. Even if you think you’re already communicating well at the top, take a look. Perhaps you’ll learn something you can add.


Recently, a new Executive Director/CEO client insisted that her communications with her board chair was outstanding. “We talk every single day; sometimes multiple times a day.” Basically, they would text each other with every little thought. Email each other links. Tweet at each other.

That’s all lovely. But how is anybody supposed to get any work done? How does either leader have time to think deeply about the big picture? The 10,000-foot view? That much interaction was a problem – a distraction. It was also making both of them feel burnt out.

In other words, it wasn’t healthy.

I agreed with her that a partnership is built on good communication. But good communication comes from talking regularly about the things that matter.

A key word and a key phrase. “Regularly” and “the things that matter.”

Let’s start with “regularly.” My client wasn’t just communicating with her Board Chair regularly. They were communicating excessively. There’s a big difference.

So how much is the right amount? Here’s my answer.

ED’s and Board Chairs should have a standing weekly meeting. In between, contact should only happen to a) add items to the weekly agenda or b) to address a very pressing issue that cannot wait.

What can’t wait? I’m talking about something like the resignation of a high profile board member. Or a major and unexpected PR crisis. Something like that.

Anything more than that is too much. And anything less frequently leads to balls being dropped. Once a week is just right.

So that’s what I mean by “regularly.”

And “the things that matter?” Well, that’s what the agenda is made of.


Here’s a template for a 90-minute weekly meeting. If you can do it faster, god bless. But there is a lot of ground to cover. Adjust for your own specific needs accordingly.

At the end, there’s a link to download the agenda as a PDF.

1. Need to Know

Each of you shares the high-level “need to know” stuff. Make sure to keep the discussion at the 10,000 foot level, unless the E.D. asks for specific tactical help on a challenge.

Here are some sample ideas for what you might discuss:

  • Big headlines, like big news to share, great new hire, or a possible new program opportunity. Both the E.D. and Board Chair should bring such news to the discussion.
  • Key challenges or obstacles the board chair should know and help the E.D. work through (an angry staff member exit, a potential bad press, a challenge with a partner organization or sector expert.) Certainly discuss anything that could jeopardize the public perception of the organization and the board’s ability to be terrific ambassadors. The Board Chair should bring up his/her key challenges as well.
  • The Board Chair should lead a conversation about the status of new board members in the pipeline and what is needed from the E.D. to move forward.

Note: It’s easy to let the E.D. dominate this part of the discussion. That should not happen. If the Board Chair is unable to articulate updates for the E.D. about the successes, challenges, and opportunities of the board, that’s a big red flag.

2. Finances

Please never leave this off the list, even if your finances are healthy. Never forget your obligation to donors to run a solid organization from a business perspective.

3. Special Initiatives

At nearly every time of the year, there is something large in the works – from budget prep to strategic planning to board governance issues to (god forbid) crisis management. Each of you should be clear about your roles with regard to these things and what the E.D. needs from the Board and vice versa.

4. Fundraising

This is just a quick snapshot accompanied by a one-page dashboard with key metrics. Discuss where the organization is YTD and where the Board is relative to its commitment. This would be a time for the E.D. to ask the Board Chair to serve as a catalyst for getting board members to fulfill the obligations they made at the beginning of each year. These messages are so much more powerful coming from a Board Chair to her/his peers.

5. Upcoming Milestones

This could be anything from (a) setting annual board goals to (b) the audit to (c) the annual gala to (d) the date the board set for vetting 5 new board members. Definitely use this time to discuss Executive Committee meetings and Board meetings coming down the pike. I believe deeply in dedicated prep for both of these regular standing meetings to use your board members’ time wisely and to achieve your own goals.

6. Review Next Steps

During the meeting, the E.D. should be taking good notes. Review the notes together and make sure you both understand what’s been agreed upon. Circulate the notes within 24 hours.

These notes become the basis for the following week’s agenda. What was accomplished? What was deferred? Why?


There are two things I’d like you to do now.

1) Please download this sample agenda here in PDF format. You can use this to help structure your own meetings.

2) I know that improving communications isn’t always so easy, even if the above agenda makes it seem that way. So I have a question for you. What is the biggest challenge you’ve had in your communications with your E.D. or Board Chair?

Answer below in the comments and I promise to offer my two cents on anything you share. Your participation will be enormously helpful to the rest of my readers. So thank you!

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • wisefool

    I love this post! After several years as an ED for a small history museum, I am still new to the nonprofit world. This is the type of nuts and bolts information I crave. My biggest challenge is understanding what an engaged Board Chair looks like. This advice will certainly help me encourage better communication. Thank you.

    • Dear Wisefool.
      I am so glad you found this helpful. It’s one of THE top issues my clients raise. Hope you will keep reading and sharing.

  • Tantalumm

    I have a situation where two of the Board members (largest donors on the Board) act as the de facto Board chairs, with the Board Chair seldom communicating. But the Chair is CEO of large company, is working to build a network with influential people, and does invite me to those meetings. As far as running the nonprofit, he’s nowhere to be found! So far, this is working…..

    • Tantalumm, This is one of the reasons that some orgs move with a co-chair model. I had a co-chair model during my tenure and when one chair was MIA, there was a good chance the other would be available to me.

  • ED

    My biggest challenge as board chair is making sure that we are discussing appropriate topics and that I’m not being manipulated into doing the ED’s work for her.

    • The best gift you can give yourself is a 2-3 hour session with your ED to really talk about your respective roles. Try to come to some clarity about roles and what balls should be in one court.

  • anonymous13

    Your advice is always so terrific, Joan! I manage a regional board for our organization (our HQ is in NYC but we have regional boards all over the country who are responsible for fundraising, not governance of the org) and my Board Chair is primarily focused on things he shouldn’t be, like how the website needs to be redesigned (even though we just received recognition for having one of the best non-profit websites out there), and coming up with new and unnecessary means (e.g. marketing products) of communicating the org’s mission. Basically anything but major gifts, which is what we have been emphasizing as the entire Board’s responsibility since it’s inception a year ago. He asks for various tools, which I give him to the best of my ability, and then he comes up with someone else that is “lacking” and making him unable to fundraise – which I think is a way of just avoiding fundraising. I have tried so many times to redirect his focus but he isn’t interested in understanding what his role should be or how he can help the organization in the way that is most needed. This is his first time on a non-profit Board, so he doesn’t have the experience to apply to this kind of leadership – but doesn’t seem interested in learning how to lead the Board in a successful way. Thank you for your advice!

    • Dear Anonymous 13. I wish I could say that your situation is unique but it SO isn’t. A board chair new to nonprofits really needs orientation. And sometimes the ED is the worst possible messenger as the orientation comes across as “Leave me alone.” Would be great to find another board member who “gets it.” Maybe more than one. Build a small alliance. Maybe they can shift things or at least know what is going on or see an obligation to be your NEXT board chair. Best of luck. Glad you find my blog of value!

      • anonymous13

        Thank you, Joan! This is reassuring, actually, and I have started to try and talk with another Board member who “gets it”, in the hopes that she can help redirect the conversations in Board meetings. I love the idea of a small alliance. Thank you so much!

  • SQP

    Our small nonprofit just lost a key employee (there were only 4 of us, 2 at part-time) and shook things up when she left — to the point where 3 board exec. committee members formed a special group to examine our staffing needs. That’s fine, but my board chair has told me how many hours the other key person can work — down 60% from where she was before. Aside from not having time to get everything done already, I feel it as a vote of no-confidence that causes a shift in how I feel about my job. I’ve been managing people and nonprofits successfully for over 30 years. We do run on a really tight budget and just had another deficit year. But aren’t they interfering with the E.D.’s job?

    • SQP. It is the job of the E.D. to hire and manage the staff. It is the board’s job to hire and evaluate the E.D. So to your question: yes, they are. Consider a meeting with your board chair. Put it out there that it feels to you that s/he is now involved in the day to day management of staff and the prioritization of the work. You can calmly say that this is the role of the E.D. Continue. “You as board chair are required to evaluate MY performance as it relates to the hiring, management and operations of the organization and that if the board begins that job one of two issues emerge (1) you will have no basis on which to evaluate MY decisions and MY performance and (2) there is a real risk that this will undermine my authority with my staff. Neither of these are in the best interest of our clients/mission. If any of this stems from a concern about my performance, I would encourage the board to conduct an annual performance review, talk me through my strengths and weaknesses and your expectations. I welcome this feedback.” This is one sample script. There are many. Try it on and see if it fits…. Best of luck.

  • Mark Litten

    Hi Joan, while I’ve been an Exec Director of a non-profit for over 10 years, I recently accepted a President/CEO position with another non-profit (economic development group/501(c)3), and upon reading over our By-Laws, I am now a voting member of the Board of Directors. Any advice on how to implement this great approach to communicating effectively w/ my Board Chair when I have the same voting power he does?

    • Mark. I need to do more homework about E.D.’s being voting members of the board. I’ve never actually understood that – it makes roles so terribly unclear. That said I have worked with E.D’s and Chairs in that model and frankly, we just ignore the fact that the E.D. has voting power. Well, maybe not ignore it but put it in this context. You are leading TOGETHER. Think of it this way. The role of the board chair is the same in both models. Give it a try and perhaps the technical voting thing should be put aside. Frankly as the E.D. you have tons of power anyway. Vote or no vote.

  • Sandra

    Working with a new Board Chair. So great to have this to as a guideline. Thank you!

    • You are welcome. Perfect time to sit and set things up for success from the get-go.

  • Mary

    A 90 minute meeting each week would be a huge leap from where we are now, and I am concerned about increasing the time expectations from our Board President since it wasn’t part of the deal when she first agreed to serve in that role. How do we get there? Are we better off with baby steps in this direction, or do we need to take the full plunge? Any tips on initiating a conversation about this with our President? Thanks!

    • Mary. I feel really strongly that regular communications with your board president is absolutely key. She needs to be in touch with you regularly. Raise the need with her and try to get something scheduled. Start with biweekly. Maybe send her this post 😉 Good luck!