What’s The Single Best Sign of a Healthy Nonprofit?

I'm a kind blogger. Here's a clue to the answer to today's question.

I’m a kind blogger. Here’s a clue to the answer.

So riddle me this batmen and women.

Tell me the ONE thing that tells you a nonprofit is thriving.

You can pick just one.

No fair you say? Well it’s MY blog so my rules. But let me help you get your creative juices flowing.

Let’s start with the wrong answers. It has nothing to do with:

  • A strong mission
  • A cash reserve
  • The diversity of your revenue streams or meeting your annual revenue goals
  • Your staff turnover %
  • The size of your board

Yes, these things are really important, but the charge here is to pick ONE. And these aren’t it.

OK, give up?

Read on and I’ll give you the right answer.


OK, here’s a hint. It has to do with a specific kind of relationship.

Which one am I talking about? After all, nonprofits are riddled with important relationships. Maybe I’m talking about the relationship between the ED and staff, or donors, or constituents. Maybe it’s the board and donors. Or the relationship between staff members?

Which relationship in a nonprofit is the single most important indicator of that nonprofit’s health?

Did you get it yet?


In 2013 I became a certified mediator for one simple reason: so much of my work is connected to the dysfunctional relationship between the two true organizational leaders: the Board Chair and the CEO. They need to work together like co-pilots in a twin-engine jet.

In my opinion, this relationship tells you more about the health of a nonprofit than any other single factor.

Take a look again at the list I gave you at the beginning of this article. The one I said didn’t have the right answer. Notice something?

Shared leadership with an invested thought partner with leadership skills can cut them all off at the pass.

The board chair and CEO need to act like co-pilots in the cockpit of a twin-engine jet, working in tandem to steer the plane safely.

But oy! There are just SO MANY THINGS that can go wrong…


I fear you will recognize some of these in your own organizations.

  1. Board Chair didn’t want the job in the first place. Was the only person who didn’t step back when the ask was made.
  2. CEO doesn’t tell the Board Chair anything meaningful. Keeps her at arm’s length. Hopes they don’t interact a lot. Perceives interaction as “intrusion.”
  3. Board Chair intrudes. Sees the role as good old standard boss/employee relationship and attempts to micro-manage the activities of the CEO.
  4. Board Chair actually wants the CEO job.
  5. Board Chair comes in distrusting / disrespecting the CEO and uses the platform to make the case that it is time to boot him.
  6. CEO believes that the Board Chair’s primarily role is to ‘protect’ her from the big bad Board.
  7. Board Chair sees her role as providing cover for CEO and to ‘save’ her from the annoying board with their nutty ideas.
  8. Board Chair is not accessible to the CEO when she needs him.
  9. There is no regular communication in either direction.
  10. Board chair delegates board and executive committee meeting agendas and actual running of the meeting to the CEO


A bad relationship between the CEO and Board Chair causes so many problems.

First of all, major problems get swept under the rug. Nobody wants to discuss them. And when you don’t talk about problems, you don’t solve them, and they just get bigger.

Without a great relationship between the two leaders, the board can become completely ineffective. I’ve seen this over and over. Board members become less engaged and cannot champion the cause. Committees don’t function (especially scary when it’s the Audit and Finance committee we’re talking about.) Sometimes the CEO winds up managing the board and she already has way too much on her plate.

Board problems can become systemic if these two leaders do not lead in building a leadership pipeline.

The CEO himself might be great, but a bad Board chair could fire him or cause him to resign in frustration. And in the other direction, a CEO who keeps the Board Chair at arm’s length is simply not doing her job.

The dysfunction can spill over to the staff. Believe me – they know when this relationship isn’t working. It’s a HUGE morale problem.

Oy. What a mess. So how do you fix it?

A great CEO – Board Chair relationship is one of the most important things you can focus on as a nonprofit leader. In fact, this “co-pilot” relationship is one of 3 keys to building a thriving nonprofit?

What are the other two?

Stay tuned!