What does the average relationship between nonprofit board and chief executive look like, and how does that impact the ways in which those parties actually interact?
That wasn't the big question driving my journey to understand what broke down in one of my early board terms. Rather, it was an alternative approach to thinking about the answer that led to my thesis research - and a new way of understanding the nonprofit leadership team.
Oddly enough, I discovered two separate, complementary versions of a director-centered leadership model almost simultaneously. One, the Emerging Alternative Model (EAM), appeared in a nonprofit text, Robert Herman and Richard Heimovics' Executive Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations: New Strategies for Shaping Board-Executive Dynamics. The second, Sally Helgesen's Web of Inclusion, was found in women's leadership literature. One took a more interpersonal approach to framing the ED's centrality; the other acknowledged the leader's real role in the organizational structure. I wasn't looking for them - or a framework placing the functional leader at the center. But that is what I found, and it stretched my thinking to surprising limits.
Now, with several years of board life experience behind me, what they describe makes perfect sense. It also doesn't require complete abandonment of the ideal vision of board service that I have fine-tuned along the way. In fact, it's an integral part of that vision. At the time, however, the notion felt downright revolutionary.
Connecting within and across the organization - reaching in and out from a central hub - was the centerpiece of Helgesen's Web. So, too, was a "collegial atmosphere" that "enables people to focus on what needs to be done rather than who has the authority to do it" (1995, p. 21). Flexibility was another hallmark. In a circular model, people shift easily within the organization. Helgesen wrote:
Also like a spider's web, the structures were continually being built up, stretched, altered, modified and transformed....At their outer edges, the webs were permeable, a bit loose, which left open the question of who was part of the organization and who was not. This permeability served to allow outsiders access, ad gave insiders ways of connecting directly to the outside. (Helgesen, p. 20)Helgesen's model is one of empowerment, of shared ownership and commitment to common goals and aspirations, whether or not the organizational chart actually shows that. It's how the work actually gets done in these organizations, she says. (p. 27)
Herman and Hemovics' EAM model intrigued me, first, because it explicitly addressed the nonprofit setting and, second, because it laid out a vision of nonprofit leadership as a shared responsibility. I summed up their premise (from H&H, p. 58) this way in the thesis literature review:
The belief that the board sets policy and the staff simply implements it is erroneous, because design and implementation of plans are always necessarily linked. The EAM acknowledges that executive directors are important participants in the decision-making process, as they should be. They have the expertise and an array of 'organizationally relevant' information available. To try to suggest that the director play a passive role in making decisions that affect the organization is unrealistic and not particularly desirable. (Beck, p. 18)As a naive young community servant, I remember being utterly floored by what Herman and Heimovics described.
The EAM made it okay to focus the board's attention and energy where they are more likely to make a difference (versus pretending they passed down perfect, fully-informed decisions down from on high). The authors suggested that board time is better spent on such functions as "Establishing contacts, raising funds, enhancing the organization's reputation and giving it legitimacy, representing it publicly and politically, and giving it advice..." (p. 65) They did not absolve the board of its oversight responsibilities. Instead, they created a mode of governance that focused more on community ambassadorship and a higher level of mission stewardship.
Herman and Heimovics also pointed out what definitely will ring true for readers who have served in that ED position: when things go wrong, it's usually the chief executive who assumes greater responsibility, even when ultimate accountability falls on the board's shoulders.
[S]ince chief executives are going to be held responsible, and since they do accept responsibility for mission accomplishment and public stewardship, perhaps they should work to see that boards fulfill their legal, organizational and community roles. We advocate this...not only because it is consistent with legal requirements and voluntaristic values, but also because...it is more likely to lead to organizational effectiveness. (p. 56)It may have been absolutely obvious to a nonprofit veteran, but it stopped me in my tracks.
In reality, EDs play pivotal communication and coordination roles with and within the board. They also, as Herman and Heimovics note, "attend to board members' feelings and needs, envision changes in organizational functioning, promote and reinforce board accomplishments, and provide useful decision-making information to the board" (p. 57)
If we're honest, we'll admit that that's what most of our EDs do.
While other aspects of the literature review informed my research - and undoubtedly would be of great interest to readers here - these director-centered models not only provided the foundation for that scholarly work, they began the process of shifting how I see and conceptualize nonprofit governance and leadership. Acknowledging the ED's pivotal leadership role made room for a more realistic understanding of where the board can make its greatest contributions - including but beyond the legal bottom line.