Board Operations Part One — The Difference Between Board Roles and Staff Roles

Today’s column begins a series on board operations. Over the next several weeks, we will explore various topics on board governance to build the capacity of the sector. Of all the conversations that we have with nonprofit leaders, board governance issues always rise to the top.

Today we focus on the difference between board roles and staff roles, which is the difference between strategic and operational roles.

Fundamentally, a nonprofit board must govern an organization with a focus on mission achievement, strategic direction, oversight and ethics, policy formation, fiduciary responsibility, leadership, organizational viability, clear processes for decision making, and a constructive partnership with the chief executive.

In other words, boards are responsible for setting the strategic direction of the organization while the staff is charged with carrying out the day-to-day operations. But, far too often, we see the board get involved in the operational aspect of the work.

These lines often are blurred with boards micromanaging staff and over-stepping boundaries. Author Anne Cohen wrote:

“How the staff gets its work done is the responsibility of the chief executive. Likewise, how the board manages its own tasks is the responsibility of the chair. In a productive partnership, the chief executive uses the board as a sounding board. Together, the two formulate strategic decisions to guide the organization. However, they need to ensure that the details of implementation are left to appropriate individuals within the professional team.”

To move a board toward a strategic mindset, it is critical to assess where you are in the nonprofit lifecycle. While a nonprofit board of an all-volunteer organization with no staff will certainly take on operational functions and roles, boards with paid professional staff need to stay out of the weeds.

One way to ensure board operations remain strategic is to follow the roles and responsibilities and the three legal duties of board governance. Per BoardSource, the top ten board roles and responsibilities are:

  1. Determine the mission and purpose, advocate for them.
  2. Select the chief executive.
  3. Support and evaluate the chief executive.
  4. Ensure effective planning
  5. Monitor and strengthen programs and services.
  6. Ensure adequate financial resources.
  7. Protect assets and provide financial oversight.
  8. Build and sustain a competent board.
  9. Ensure legal and ethical integrity.
  10. Enhance the organization’s public standing.

When the board fulfills these roles and responsibilities, they are functioning at a strategic level, leaving it up to the staff to execute and operate.

The chief executive and board chair work together to identify strategic needs and coach the board toward this style of leadership. When board meetings only include report-outs on activities and tasks, the board will become mired in operations. Examining the board committee structure can also help in these efforts.

The report-out types of updates are great for a consent agenda (more on that next week) because the way in which a board uses its time in board meetings is in and of itself a strategic decision. When the board can focus at a higher level, then the discussion, dialogue, and debate align with good governance practices.

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