Perhaps the most frequently asked question that I get is, ““X isn’t my job, is it? It is the board’s, right?” Or, the flip, “that’s the ED’s job, right? Not ours?” Sometimes, the question is broader: “What is the ED’s job and what is our job?”
Those asking the question want a box with dark, thick lines clearly outlining the borders of the box over which no one should stray. Anything inside those borders is “mine;” outside those borders is “yours.” My box contains my discreet responsibilities. Your box contains yours, and never the twain shall meet.
The reality is that the Board/ED relationship is a partnership. While there are many partnerships where the delineations are clear and unwavering, some that are dependent upon the individuals and their existing skills, and still others that depend upon how well you do what you are supposed to do, and vice versa.
To think that you can draw that box and put in X number of tasks believing they are immutable and self-contained is both unrealistic and impractical. That’s not the way partnerships work; the partnership of board and ED is no different.
Perhaps this is best understood by considering two factors.
First is the fact that the players in these roles change, sometimes rapidly, sometimes at the pace of extinction. The concept of forming, storming, norming, and performing model is not limited to the dynamics of groups of three or more, but applies equally to groups of two.
Thus, whenever either position of executive director or board president turns over, that partnership will need to go back to square one and do some storming, be it light or fierce and anywhere in between. Maybe the new board president wants to be more involved than the prior one, or really thinks s/he is the boss and goes off and acts on her/his own without talking to, or consulting with, the ED.
Perhaps the new executive director wants to keep the board at arm’s length, believing that s/he is in total charge and the board works for her/him, instead of the two working together, with a slight advantage to the Board.
Depending upon when new board members join, the nature of how the players in these two positions have structured their roles and the partnership, will lead board members to gain a false or accurate understanding of the partnership, or whether there is even supposed to be a partnership at all. (The answer to the latter is a clear and resounding yes, just in case you are still wondering).
Thus, in answering the question of what is the reality of what is mine and what is yours is very much dependent upon the players. Again, should this be the case? Absolutely not.
The second factor to understand is that what is the board’s and what is the ED’s are pieces of a larger whole. The assigned jobs of each are not discreet tasks that once done have achieved all that was intended and needed. Quite to the contrary.
Once done, what the board’s job was supposed to do is awaiting what the ED (and/or other staff) was supposed to do in order to reach full potential and intended impact, and the flip holds as well: what the ED is supposed to do is waiting for the board to do its part in order to reach its potential. In other words, each half of the partnership must do its responsibilities in order for the goal of each to reach fruition.
For example, while it is the ED’s job to configure the staffing structure and hire people to populate it, that can’t be done unless the board has a solid grasp of the financial health of the organization now and into the future. An ED may be able to make a great argument for why two additional staff members are needed, but the board must make the argument of sufficient resources to support those positions. Alternatively, we expect board members to introduce new potential donors to the organization and to cultivate existing new donors, but if there isn’t the staff to support the work of board members as they steward those relationships and welcome new potential donors, the work of the board is for naught. So, is hiring staff the work of the board or the ED? Is fundraising the work of board or staff? These, like so many functions, are the work of both.
A large part of the challenge in understanding what’s ours and what’s yours is that this relationship is not static. As previously noted, it is absolutely dependent upon the players in the role of executive director and board president, but also the other board members. And, it is influenced by where an organization is in its lifecycle. This influence doesn’t change the naming of the responsibilities, but absolutely may change the particulars of those responsibilities. The fluidity of this partnership, however, is its beauty, allowing the partnership to be more or less, better or not, and the opportunity, always for enhancement.