Strengthening CEO/Board Chair Relationships: Insights from Nonprofit Leaders

May 8, 2024


In a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Gilman Partners’ Nonprofit Leadership Practice, area nonprofit leaders gathered to share best practices for enhancing the working relationship between CEOs/EDs and Board Chairs. The conversation delved into various aspects of leadership dynamics within nonprofit organizations, offering valuable insights for strengthening collaboration and ensuring effective governance. Here’s an in-depth look at the key takeaways.

Clarity of Responsibilities

Clear delineation of responsibilities between the CEO and Board Chair is essential for effective governance. Ensuring that both parties have a clear understanding of their roles and expectations minimizes confusion and fosters a productive working relationship. One participant quoted a long-time nonprofit volunteer who described the desired symbiotic relationship between Board Chair and CEO as a tennis match where both leaders are playing doubles on the same side of the net. Additionally, appointing a Board Chair with prior leadership experience can offer valuable insights and empathy for the CEO’s challenges, enhancing collaboration and decision-making within the boardroom.

Onboarding and Support for New CEOs

Navigating the transition into a new leadership role can be daunting for any CEO. However, with the support of the board, this process can be significantly smoother. The roundtable emphasized the importance of proactive onboarding initiatives, where the board plays a pivotal role. By facilitating introductions to key stakeholders and providing insights into organizational culture, the board sets the stage for the CEO’s success from day one. Participants highlighted the significance of the CEO’s early priorities, particularly in assessing the team and understanding the organization’s dynamics within the critical first 30, 60, and 90 days.

By outlining clear expectations and providing structured support, organizations can ensure a seamless leadership transition and alignment of goals and strategies from the start. This includes establishing a frequent cadence for communication between the board and CEO, depending on the size of the organization, to continuously align onboarding efforts.

Empowering Board Chairs

Fostering a strong working relationship between the Board Chair and CEO is crucial. Participants underscored the importance of creating ‘protected space’ between the Board Chair and CEO to cultivate trust and promote collaborative decision-making. There should also be a joint effort to plan activities that help them connect outside of the office, whenever possible, to spark creative alignment and shared learning experiences.

The role of the Board Chair was acknowledged as considerably more complex than that of a regular board member. Therefore, it’s essential to equip Board Chairs with the necessary skills and support to navigate their responsibilities effectively. This includes providing training or mentorship opportunities, especially in areas such as finance and governance, where deep understanding is crucial for effective decision-making.

Leveraging Vice Chairs and Past Chairs

While the Vice Chair role may sometimes be underutilized, it holds significant potential for succession planning and strategic leadership. Participants discussed the importance of involving Vice Chairs in strategic discussions as a coaching opportunity and to prepare them to advance into the Board Chair position. Similarly, engaging Past Chairs can provide valuable insight and support during leadership transitions, ensuring continuity and institutional memory within the organization.

Board Development and Succession Planning

The strategic selection of Board Chairs is paramount, and organizations are urged to appoint leaders whose skills align closely with the organization’s current needs. Whether navigating a transition period or undergoing significant organizational change, the choice of a Board Chair with the appropriate expertise can wield substantial influence in steering the organization toward its objectives. It is crucial for organizations to intentionally identify Board Chairs possessing strong financial literacy and a proven grasp of governance.

Annual assessments with board members can help identify leadership potential and support succession planning for future roles on the board. In these assessments, the remaining term length of a board member should be recognized for the sake of understanding the future skillset needs of the organization and to make sure the organization allows for healthy board member turnover without the temptation to bend its bylaws to accommodate longer terms. To that end, board committees were highlighted as a valuable “farm system” for grooming potential board members, allowing organizations to assess interest and suitability for board officer and committee chair positions.

Leadership Succession Planning

Succession planning at the organizational level emerged as a central theme in the discussion, with participants emphasizing the importance of identifying and nurturing future leaders in the talent pipeline by giving them access and exposure to the Board throughout the year. Ownership of leadership succession planning lies not only with the CEO but also with the Board Chair. By taking responsibility for developing and implementing a leadership succession plan, Board Chairs ensure continuity and stability within the organization. Normalizing conversations about the CEO’s tenure and engaging the board in assessing internal talent can facilitate long-term succession planning and organizational resilience.

In conclusion, by implementing these best practices, nonprofit organizations can strengthen their leadership teams, foster collaborative relationships between CEOs and Board Chairs, and ensure long-term sustainability and success. Effective governance hinges on proactive onboarding, clarifying responsibilities, empowering Board Chairs, leveraging Vice Chairs and Past Chairs, and strategic succession planning. By prioritizing these areas, nonprofit organizations can navigate challenges, seize opportunities, and drive meaningful impact in their communities.