Walk and Talk

The relationship between a nonprofit’s executive director and board chair sets the stage for the effectiveness and energy of the organization.

What are the most important characteristics of a good working relationship between a nonprofit’s executive director and its board chair? Communication, trust, and candor.

Executive leaders and board chairs can attain their most productive levels of management and governance by regularly and honestly assessing the current status of the organization, by deeply understanding their roles and responsibilities, by respecting the guidelines of best practices, and by working on those three qualities of communication, trust, and candor.

To develop those strengths, first understand how organizations and boards grow and change. (Watch for an upcoming CP Connector article on the stages of board development.) To determine where your organization stands in the lifecycle of boards, ask yourselves if board members:

  • offer their own program ideas?
  • focus on day-to-day operations of the nonprofit?
  • recruit new board members?
  • act as philanthropic leaders?

With an understanding of where your organization is in the board lifecycle, begin to hone the roles and responsibilities of the executive leader and the board.

The executive director/chief executive office is responsible for:

  • overseeing day-to-day operation of the organization
  • developing programming
  • creating a budget with input from the board
  • overseeing marketing and communications

The board chair guides the work of the board to:

  • determine strategic direction
  • hire the ED/CEO and delegate operations
  • provide oversight (legal, financial, and managerial) and set policies
  • partner with ED and staff to raise funds to actualize the strategic plan
  • serve as passionate ambassadors for the nonprofit’s mission and vision

The board chair also takes on the responsibility for evaluating the executive and for leading the board’s self-evaluation. Far from being onerous, these are critical opportunities to reflect on the health and well-being of the organization and the relationships between executive leaders and their boards.

Clarity about the development stage of the board and about roles and responsibilities provides the groundwork for strong communication, trust, and candor. These qualities may emerge naturally if there is already a good fit. But usually they must be developed intentionally through purposeful outreach and communication:

  • Some EDs report talking to board chairs several times a week, or meeting once a month at a favorite café, or local lunch spot, or scheduling regular walking meetings à la Steve Jobs (exercise the brain and body).
  • Whether you are an ED or board chair, consider meeting one-on-one with other board members.
  • Make sure board documents to or from the ED are accurate to avoid misunderstanding or embarrassment.
  • Choose the right timing for conversations—what days or times offer the most relaxed and open interactions?
  • Institute a clear orientation process for a new ED and for board members to give new people a sense of the lay of the land and to clarify expectations.
  • Commit to a culture of “no surprises” to develop open and honest communication.

The ED and board chair create the best balance in their work for the organization when they can communicate openly and honestly and embrace their shared leadership. So, next time you have a chance, take a walk and talk.

If you’d like to talk to Capacity Partners about a board development, please don’t hesitate to email Margo Reid at margo@capacitypartners.com

Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies

Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies

CONSULTING AREA: Board Development

Sara Watkins is knowledgeable, collaborative, and creative. She is both grounded and inspirational, bringing a wealth of knowledge to the process. Sara does not use boilerplate; instead she tailors her work to meet the particular needs of an organization. She gave us a process that’s in progress to improve the effectiveness of our board of directors.

– Elaine Amir, President, Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies


The Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies (previously known as the Foundation for Jewish Studies) is the largest independent provider of Jewish adult education in the Greater Washington area, offering each year more than 50 different occasions to meet with, discuss, and learn from top educators. The Institute seeks to stimulate engagement with Jewish texts, promote discussion about Jewish culture, life, history, literature and philosophy, and is working to ensure the longevity of the Jewish faith and tradition.

The Institute enrolled in a Sustainable Board Workshop taught by Sara Watkins at the Nonprofit Village, seeking advice on how to evaluate and set new direction for its board of directors.

Key Challenges

As a mature organization launched more than 30 years ago, the Institute needed help learning best practices for board development and recruitment to implement what they had learned.

Services Provided

Capacity Partners met with board and staff members to learn more about the strengths and needs of the organization. Capacity Partners then helped the board develop a self-evaluation survey which was completed by all board members. The survey results were used as the basis for a board retreat. During the retreat, board members discussed the size of the board, committee structure, orientation for new members, attracting and recruiting strategies, and evaluation of board effectiveness. Capacity Partners also has developed an immediate needs work plan, created calendar of cultivation activities, and developed solicitation letters and strategies to enhance fundraising tactics and results. Projects also included developing a new sponsorship structure.


At the conclusion of the self-evaluation, board members reassessed their individual contributions to the board and evaluated their effectiveness as board members. As a result of the retreat, board members decided to recruit potential new members to serve on committees according to the areas of expertise needed by the Institute. Through service on a committee, both the board and the new committee members could determine if moving onto the full board would be mutually advantageous. In addition to specific expertise, the Institute now emphasizes committee members who are passionate about the Institute’s mission and energized to advance and support it.