Supporting your chief executive

By Regenia Bailey / Guest Editorial

One of the responsibilities of a nonprofit board is to support the work and development of the organization’s chief executive. The board’s chair may end up doing much of this work, but it creates a stronger organization when there is a board culture that supports the leadership development of its executive.

The good news is that developing a supportive culture needn’t be cumbersome. Here are some tips for building such a culture in your organization:

Don’t skimp on the training and development budget

Supporting the chief executive includes enabling them to get the training they need to do their job better. That means even the smallest organizations should include a budget line item for training and development.

Development activities may include leadership training or training in a specific issue area. Although there’s a lot to be said for getting away from the office for training, webinars can provide affordable opportunities for learning, and can be a starting place for organizations with smaller budgets.

All too often, an executive will spend training and development funds on the professional development of other staff members. It’s important that the board emphasize that it supports ongoing training throughout the organization, including for the organization’s leader.

Even if there are funds available, an executive may forego training opportunities because they require time out of the office. This can be particularly challenging in organizations with limited staff. Providing the resources for training and development means that the board not only budgets the necessary funding, but also supports the executive taking the necessary time for training.

Be clear about expectations

Supporting the chief executive involves providing regular evaluations and working with the executive to set clear performance goals. This helps take the mystery out of the board’s expectations.

Because the chief executive is so integrally linked to the success of the organization, it makes sense that their goals and expectations are closely tied to the organization’s performance in meeting the objectives outlined in its strategic plan. Explicit, mutually developed goals enable the board and its executive to define successful performance for both parties, and mitigate the stress that results from unclear or implied performance expectations.

Treat the executive like a professional

Board support for a chief executive ensures that they have the trust, space and necessary tools to lead the organization. I’ve known of boards that restrict their executive’s spending abilities – well beyond appropriate fiscal risk management – to purchase even budget-approved items. There are boards that insert themselves into hiring processes for employees who will be supervised by the organization’s executive. I’ve seen some board members collude with staff to undermine the supervisory authority of the organization’s leader. Granted, these are extreme examples, but there are many ways, small and large, that a board can fail to support its executive by straying into the management functions of the organization.

Board support for its executive maintains a clear distinction between governance and management responsibilities. Limiting the power of the chief executive to perform even the most routine tasks in the organization turns the CEOs role into one of an administrative assistant to the board, one who is able to act only with permission and has no real power to act independently. Second-guessing an executive’s management decisions without strategic or policy concerns undermines an executive’s authority. A board that has trouble trusting its executive with the power necessary to lead limits the organization’s ability to thrive.

None of this is to say that the board should blindly support everything the chief executive does. If there are problems with the executive’s performance, they must be addressed quickly and directly without waiting for a scheduled annual review. Most problems can be prevented with explicitly stated performance expectations and with regular communication between the executive and the board.

Working as a chief executive of a nonprofit is a big job with many challenges. The board can make a real difference in the success of the executive – and by extension, the success of the organization – by providing its support. The details of how a supportive culture is managed and maintained will vary from organization to organization, but the basic building blocks will always include providing funds and time for training, working with the executive to set clear goals, and treating the executive like a professional.




Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Initiative. She is a former mayor of Iowa City and teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit