09 Apr

Where the Magic Happens: Professional and Lay Partnerships

Nonprofit magic happens when an organization has: (1) a strong professional leader and  (2) a dedicated and engaged board and (3) the two have a collaborative and well-tuned working relationship. Unfortunately, sometimes there is either a star, take-charge management professional OR a super-charged board driving an organization with their counterpart marginalized. In other cases, both the  lay and professional leaders are strong but the working relationship between the two is weak or worse, dysfunctional.

Organizations with a Dominant Professional

When organizations are dominantly professionally led and driven, one danger is that the Board coasts and is not adequately engaged in its fiduciary responsibilities, both in terms of approving and monitoring the budgets and in fundraising  to realize the potential capacity of the organization. In these cases, the Board often also fails to fulfill its duty of setting the strategic course and direction of the organization unless being led or prodded to do so by the Chief Executive Officer or Executive Director.

Another side effect of a professionally driven organization is that the paid leader often chooses to withhold or delay information from the Board because she doesn’t see the point since the Board is unlikely to respond or be active. Often, this is information the Board should have. By the professional shouldering the burden or shielding the board, it can cause the Board’s non-feasance. Moreover, Board members who are looking for meaningful service will seek other opportunities when not being properly engaged and utilized. Superstar board members don’t want to be rubber stamps.

When the Executive Director (“ED”) of the Chief Executive Officer  (“CEO”) does not believe that they  have a true working partner in the Board, their job becomes incredibly stressful and lonely. If they are lucky, the ED or CEO can use their senior staff as sounding boards or engage outside resources, such as a coach. When an organization is so staff driven, it is vulnerable when the professional leadership turns-over.

Organizations with a Dominant Board

In the instances where the Board is the primary driver of the organization, a common problem is micro-management of the Executive Director by the Board. In extreme cases, where the professional is significantly micro-managed, undermined or diminished to just a figure-head,  she may loose control of her staff if they fail to have confidence in and respect for her. When the board repeatedly and egregiously crosses the line, retention of the professional leader can be a problem.

Another danger is that volunteers who do the lion’s share of work for an organization ultimately burn out or come to resent their roles.  A corollary follows that other board members are scared or suspect of taking leadership roles on over-powering boards because of the example set that the lay staff runs the show and must commit an inordinate amount of time to the organization.  Most people don’t want to compromise their paid career or family time with such volunteer responsibilities.

Strong Professional, Strong Board

If an organization is lucky enough to have both a strong professional and a strong board, the next step is working to ensure their partnership is successful. Successful professional and lay relationships are based on four key components:

1. Mutual Respect and Trust

2. Shared Vision

3.  Clear Roles and Responsibilities

4. Clear, Open and Continuous Communication

Anytime any one of these components is lacking, the working relationship is weakened.

Making Magic

Besides luck, how can an organization work to attract and retain a stellar professional and a board leader who are each clear of their respective roles and work well together to craft a vision and direction for the organization:

1. Hire/elect leaders who know how to work with other people and manage relationships. If leaders need help with managing their work relationships, invest in coaching.

2. Make sure job descriptions for board members and professional staff are very clear with distinct roles and responsibilities and include working with each other in a collaborative partnership.

3.  Create a culture of openness, collaboration and partnership for the organization by holding retreats, regularly inviting staff to board meetings and establishing mentoring programs to promote dialogue and relationship building. Use outside facilitators for retreats and meetings to allow everyone in the organization to participate.

4.  Have regular two-way reviews and establish annual goals  that include benchmarks for working together and incentives for meeting the benchmarks.

5.  Schedule regular (weekly or bi-weekly, if possible) meetings of the CEO/ED and Board Chair.

6.  Share financial information regularly with the entire board regardless of how often your board meets.

7.  Actively engage board members in development activities especially joint ED/CEO/CPO and Board member solicitations.

8.  Use strategic planning to engage both professional and lay leaders in the process and in measuring progress. Engage a professional strategic planner to make sure that all stakeholders are heard equally in the process.

9.   Tend to both professional and lay succession planning to make sure that leaders can “come up the ranks” together.

10. Insist that everyone in the organization work in an honest, respectful and transparent manner. Establish a zero-tolerance policy and enforce it.

It is hard to make magic but when you do, you will find work is more fun and  more meaningful for both the professional and volunteer leaders and the greatest potential of  organizations is unleashed!

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