How a CEO and Board Chair Can Build an Amazing Partnership

Building a memorable partnership.  Complimentary skills. Laughter also key.

Building a memorable partnership. Complimentary skills. Laughter also key.

Last week I asserted that the best sign of a healthy nonprofit is a healthy partnership between the Board Chair and the CEO. I wrote:

“Shared leadership with an invested thought partner with leadership skills can cut so many challenges off at the pass and propel your organization toward the fulfillment of your mission more quickly, more clearly, and more strategically.”

If you haven’t already, go read last week’s post. I’ll wait for you. When you finish, come right back. Just click on this link:

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

Welcome back!

So a few weeks ago, I helped a client (an Executive Director) prepare for an upcoming board meeting. There was lots of great program information, but some challenging financials to report. The meeting was scheduled for two hours, so we planned a 15-20 minute executive director report.

Cut to the board meeting. The Board Chair hadn’t prepared any sort of agenda whatsoever. After a bit, my client indicates that he should probably give his report.

“OK,” says the Board Chair with some serious attitude. “You have 120 seconds.”

What does a “five star” Board Chair look like?

Let’s just say that while my client made the very best of a bad situation, the meeting did not go uphill from there.

But let’s be clear. It’s not just about the Board Chair. It’s about the relationship.

So let’s talk about this. How can and Executive Director and a Board Chair build an amazing relationship? 


I was working with another client approaching a change in board leadership with trepidation. “I think this new one is actually going to do stuff,” she said. “My last Board Chair left me alone and that’s just how I like it.”

Gasp. A Board Chair that does stuff. I needed to know more. The incoming Board Chair asked me for some coaching and I found him to be strategic, thoughtful, and completely passionate about the mission. In addition, he has a plan to ask each and every board member for an annual contribution and even showed me a spreadsheet of the total he plans to raise just from the board alone.

I reported back to the CEO. “Doing stuff” does not have to mean “meddling.” She got it. And I’m happy to report that this particular Board Chair/CEO partnership has become one of the best I’ve seen.

So how did they get there?


As you read these, rank each one from 1 to 5 against your own experience at your nonprofit, where a 1 = “completely dysfunctional” and a 5 = “perfect… couldn’t possibly be any better.”

If you’re seeing all 4’s and 5’s, congratulations!

But, if not, start to think about ways to improve these. The first step is to acknowledge and understand the problem.

So, without any further ado…

1) Board Chair and CEO are both crazy about the organization.  Their shared passion for the organization drives them to spend a whole lot of time having strategic, sometimes difficult conversations in order to propel the board and the staff forward with a eye firmly planted on the mission.

2) Board Chair actually wants and understands the job.  If this is true, then the Board Chair will make the time to talk to board members, to raise money, to steer committee chairs in the right direction, to recruit great new board members, and to work with the CEO.

3) Chair and CEO plan Executive Committee calls together.  Two weeks prior to each Executive Committee call, a weekly call should be dedicated to the agenda for this meeting. Way way too often, this meeting is simply a CEO monologue. If Executive Committee members are not asked their opinions about something, they will just stay on mute.

How to Build an Effective Executive Committee

4) Chair and CEO plan Board Meetings together.  Both the CEO and the Board Chair should have goals. What does the board need to know, what do they need to weigh in on, how can the meeting best engage them.

5) Chair and CEO meet weekly. Nonnegotiable. The CEO sends agenda the day before. The Board Chair should make it clear that she does not attend meetings without agendas. The agenda should not just be on the fly. CEOs will say they talk to their board chairs all the time.  But once a week, there should be an intentional conversation with an agenda.


This meeting should not be a monologue and should include:

  1. CEO anxiety. Discussion about something the CEO is worried about that can be problem solved together.
  2. Personnel. Both on the board and staff side. New hires, open positions, challenges, board recruitment.
  3. Fundraising. Not just how the staff and board are doing, but any requests CEO has for the Board Chair
  4. Sector education. Give Board Chair some info about the “movement” or the sector to keep her up to speed on the context in which the work is being done.
  5. Financials. Quick finance update and any red flags.
  6. Key priorities. Each partner shares key priorities for the week.
  7. Action items. Meeting ends and an email is sent RIGHT AFTER THE MEETING with any action items that each has committed to – I like to call that shared accountability.


Maybe, just maybe, high end funders (corporate, foundations, individuals) should, from time to time, ask to meet the CEO and the Board Chair together.

Maybe, just maybe, the CEO or Development Director should invite the Board Chair along to an ask, to a cultivation, to an exploratory discussion with a funder.

Maybe, just maybe, foundations should ask that the Board Chair be available during a site visit, in person or by phone.

And maybe, just maybe, boards will spend just a bit more time thinking about the leadership pipeline.

How to Select First Rate Board Members


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