Remember that game we played in school – tug-of-war? While the origin is uncertain, it has been around since the 8th century BC as a game of strength and teamwork. 

The concept is simple, but the strategy behind it is complex – it requires more than just power. It also requires cooperation, clear leadership and communication, and a good understanding of physics.

It is an apt analogy for our blog this week on board-CEO conflict. Without the right discussions ahead of time, the shared responsibility for a nonprofit can lead to unresolved conflict, bruised relationships and damage to the nonprofit itself, sometimes beyond repair. Don’t get me wrong – I have written a lot about my belief in the effectiveness of tension, but when it escalates into real conflict without effective communication patterns, the results can be devastating.

The board-CEO relationship and its effect on the productivity of the board is critical to the success of an organization. An effective board is a dynamic, fluid group that brings new ideas to further a cause they are passionate about. It creates a multiplier effect for any nonprofit that helps it soar to new heights. In contrast, an ineffective board can be an unnecessary drag, creating confusion and a sense of disenfranchisement. The good news is that the difference between an effective and ineffective board comes down to a few things – a culture of shared purpose, clear expectations and a communication structure that allows for diversity of thought and inclusivity.

To help us avoid conflict-related calamity and better understand board-CEO alignment, we thought we’d share common sources of conflict and share our tips on how to find common ground between the perspectives:


Nonprofit CEOs Say:
Board members don’t attend meetings or are not prepared for meetings. They also don’t follow through on commitments.

Board Members Say:
We want our time to be valued and obligations understood upfront. Board meetings are often unstructured and focus on updates, which don’t value my unique skillset.

At board trainings, I often note that great board members are great, not because of what they do at board meetings, but what they do between board meetings. Yet, to develop great board members, the board and CEO need to work together to ensure that expectations are clear and the lines of communication are open. First, we encourage nonprofit boards to have a board commitment form or contract, which is signed annually. It makes board obligations (e.g., committee requirements, monetary donations, meeting attendance) clear upfront and should include all relevant dates for board meetings or major events. Second, we also encourage CEOs to use email for updates and work collaboratively with the board chair to ensure that board meetings contain strategic discussion items. In our opinion, board meetings should follow meeting best practices, including established charters and ground rules, to leverage active engagement of the board.


Nonprofit CEOs Say:
Board members don’t understand what we do and make strategic decisions without fully understanding programs, issues or organizational history.

Board Members Say:
We want to understand more about the organization but need to receive the information in a structured, straight-forward process. It can be very confusing.

I also tell board members that one of their key roles should be as an ambassador for the nonprofit. But, in order to do this, board members need to feel comfortable telling the organization’s story. First, we encourage nonprofits to bring new board members on the board through a “dating” process. Start first by asking prospective board members to attend functions, visit programs and attend a board meeting as visitors. Consider a trial period of prospective members serving on a board committee. Once both parties feel there is mutual “fit,” ask the prospective individual to consider the board. Nonprofits need to have a detailed conversation about board commitment requirements and answer any questions. Second, we also encourage nonprofits to have a board book or online portal that is updated annually that includes the history of the organization, key governance documents and contact information. There should also be an orientation process for new board members, including having returning board members serve as mentors to new board members. Finally, nonprofit CEOs should also invite board members to key community meetings on issues impacting the organization so they can stay on top of trends. We also highly recommend an annual retreat to come together to share and strategize around these trends and update/adopt a strategic plan.


Nonprofit CEOs say:
I don’t really know what board members think about the organization, board meetings or me.

Board members say:
We want to be able to share feedback to improve the organization, but don’t know the best or most appropriate way.

It is time for nonprofits to bring measurement currently used for programs into the boardroom. Each board should set goals and metrics for itself and use a dashboard to track progress. Ideally, all nonprofits are conducting an annual assessment of the CEO and board performance using a 360 process. If meetings are a problem for your board, you can also conduct a regular meeting evaluation. We have also included our board effectiveness survey, which we developed based on our observations of common characteristics shared by the most effective boards.


We strongly believe in the role the board plays in providing guidance to nonprofit organizations. Their insider-outsider viewpoint should provide a fresh perspective on issues and can help provide objectivity to decision-making. Plus, their connections can add to the nonprofit’s ability to tell their story to the community it serves. The best nonprofits have a strong CEO AND a strong board that work together in a partnership to create an even stronger nonprofit. However, to ensure this happens, nonprofits and board members must find the right match and fit, and establish an ongoing commitment to transparency, communication and continuous improvement. We welcome your feedback on this board-CEO conversation and would love to hear how you’ve found common ground between your organization and board.

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