Excerpt from Chapter 8 of the book “Intersections and Innovations: Change for Canada’s Voluntary and Nonprofit Sector,” edited by Susan Phillips and Bob Wyatt and published as a free e-book by the Muttart Foundation.

Chapter 8: Board Governance in Practice

By Owen Charters

“But, I thought you were the boss …”

My son, age six, discovered that I had a boss, even though we’d previously described – in simple terms – that as a charity CEO, I was the boss of the organization. This discovery came as we embarked on a family adventure to meet my board of directors at a social engagement, and after a caution to him from my wife and I that he had to be on his best behaviour for “daddy’s boss.”

There are probably few things more complicated to describe than the true role and function of a board of directors. If only things could all easily be explained in terms a six-year-old could understand. Alas, a board does sound simple in concept but is exceedingly complex in practice.
Unlike the private sector, the nonprofit sector is unique in that all formally incorporated organizations require a board: there are no sole proprietors in this sector. Thus, if you work for a charity or nonprofit, you ultimately report to a board in some manner – you cannot escape this fact. Yet board management is an often-overlooked facet of a nonprofit’s function. An executive director (ED) or chief executive officer (CEO) entering the role for the first time is probably steeped in some critical function of a nonprofit’s operations – fundraising, programs, finance, or marketing – but is likely a rookie when it comes to managing the affairs of the board.

Franca Gucciardi and Alan Broadbent (2017), in their book, You’re It! Shared Wisdom for Successfully Leading Organizations from Both a Seasoned and a First-Time CEO, write:

Being the key link between the board and the management of the organization is a very different thing. Learning to do this well is a priority. Successful CEOs manage their board to help it serve the organization effectively. Less successful CEOs manage their board to minimize its impact. Failing CEOs allow their board to manage them.

The rookie ED or CEO must learn quickly and navigate an expansive area of management: managing a board is not the usual case of “managing up” and dealing only with one supervisor. It requires managing the complexity of a group of supervisors that can only act collectively. Group dynamics complicate the relationship, as does the fact that first, boards are not usually involved in the day-to-day business of the organization, and second, board members often do not understand their role intricately.

Click here for access to a pdf of Chapter 8, “Board Governance in Practice” (including sources), by Owen Charters, as well as access to other chapters.

Owen Charters is CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada.

Monday, August 30, 2021 in
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