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Associations Now

How to Build Better Board-CEO Relationships

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, July 2009, Feature

By: Interview by Mark Athitakis

When your board and CEO are at loggerheads, it's time to rediscover what energizes and engages everybody. Author June Bradham shares her advice on how to stay focused on a common mission. (Titled "Staying Afloat" in print edition.)
Summary: When board members and CEOs fail to work well together, the problem is often a loss of passion and enthusiasm. June Bradham has some ideas on how to restore the spark.

June Bradham's message about working with boards seems like a no-brainer: Cultivate people who have real excitement for your organization's mission, and make sure to sustain that excitement. Of course, that's easier said than done. Politics within the board, the relationship with the CEO, the structure of the board itself, and countless other problems can easily upend the delicate staff-volunteer balance, even when everybody shares a common mission.

In her new book, The Truth About What Nonprofit Boards Want, nonprofit consultant Bradham interviews a host of nonprofit board members about what motivates them to serve and to keep serving. In the process, she debunks a number of myths about how board members  feel about training, staff leadership, and the reasons they signed on for board work in the first place. 

Associations Now: The word "engage" is on pretty much every page of your book. How can you tell when you have an engaged board?

June Bradham: One easy way to tell is that people will come early and stay late, because they want to talk to each other. Those are people that like each other, or respect each other, or want to get to know each other better. When you have an engaged board, you can feel it in the board meetings.

Another issue involves how that board meeting is run. Let's take a large state chamber board. Maybe there are 50 or more members of that board. Typically, you've got a very strong executive committee that really makes all the decisions. It's pretty much a talking-head board meeting: There are going to be some reports, some recommendations, and it's impolite for board members to ask many questions or make many comments. You just have to assume that the executive committee has made the right decision. Honestly, that's a case where they could have sent out a report, asked for an email vote, and you could have sent it in. There's a lack of engagement unless you're on the executive committee. People often say, "I hate a strong executive committee unless I'm on it."

Who's responsible for detecting and repairing that disengagement?

It's the board chair and the CEO's responsibility. To make a good board meeting there's got to be an incredible amount of trust and respect between the board and the CEO, particularly between the board chair and the CEO. Those two people need to truly value the board's opinions and be open and transparent about that. What I find is that the most engagement occurs when there is nothing on the agenda that does not require a decision or discussion. That takes a lot of discipline by the board chair, to tell a committee chair that they can't put something on the agenda. If they had a special membership drive and got so many members, they're proud of that, and of course they want to tell people. The problem is that takes up the whole board meeting and that's something that anybody can read in a written report.

So the best board meetings that I've witnessed are where the agenda is made with things that require a decision or discussion and where they come with good facts. Let's say an association board is going to decide whether or not they want to have a certification for a certain level of accomplishment. A committee of the board and some staff will have looked at what it would take and what others are doing. So they would probably lay out the information in order to make that decision. At that point, the entire board should be invited to comment. Really invited—not just, "Is there any discussion?"—where there's good dialogue, and everybody feels like their opinions are valued, wanted, and that it's okay to open their mouths. Because that is not the case in most board meetings.

How much work needs to be done between board meetings to strengthen those relationships?

A lot. The CEO has to know that they need to spend more time with some than others, either because there's an immediate issue, or this person has a lot of value that they can bring to the board, and you want to make sure that they're consistently feeling supported and understood. What I like to tell the CEO is, your number-one priority is to build your relationship with your board. You need to get to know them. You need to know whether or not they like being around you or not. You need to know about their children and their families and their businesses. You need to get to know them as a human being. It's important that that CEO listens and asks questions: "Here's what I'm thinking. How do you feel about that?" The CEO needs to know how each board member wants to be communicated with. Some want personal visits, others are fine with emails, others want a phone call. One reason why things happen so slowly in not-for-profits is the CEO and the board chair are not interfacing with the board members enough and understanding where they are.

Your book largely covers philanthropic boards. How are these relationships different in associations?

"If the board is very strong and the CEO is weak, the CEO is going to get fired."—June Bradham

In an association it's a little bit different because likely they're not going to ask somebody who's not related to the trade. If it's a homebuilder association, they're going to go to homebuilders. But where is their passion? Is it around zoning? Is it around legislative issues? If it's a chamber [of commerce], is it around legislative issues around workmen's comp, or is it the strategy for building a better state economy? Does this person have some particular expertise or is just simply very passionate about that cause?

I've been on and am on trade association boards right now. When I look at my role in those boards, there's always your membership fee, and there's been an over-and-above giving. With a state chamber board there was a pinnacle society: People who gave $10,000 or $25,000 extra to belong to that society. When I was on the executive committee I belonged to the pinnacle society. When I got off the executive committee I did not because I wasn't as engaged. Even in associations it goes back to, do I have a passion for what they're doing? Do I feel like I'm making a difference? Do I admire and respect the CEO? 

As you mentioned, nonprofits are often slow-moving ships. How can staff and volunteer leadership become more results oriented?

It really starts with a strategic plan; the board chair really needs to bleed a strategic plan. Too often you see that done by staff, and it is the board's role to set the vision and the policy of that organization. If you have a good board chair who can choose the best and the brightest to come together on the strategic planning committee and they get the whole board to think about the vision, that's going to drive what needs to get done.

Let me give you an example. I'm on a private school board right now. I haven't had a child that went there, and I didn't go there, so I'm the lone outsider on the board. My strength is in strategic planning and strategic thinking, so I was engaged, and I was asked to be on the strategic planning committee. What I was able to bring to the table was form and process. So within six weeks we had gone, start to finish, putting the bones together for how to pull strategy out of that board and staff. Once the vision was set, then the strategic planning committee went into doing homework. What was the enrollment level? What about building diversity? What about financial aid to students? What about a core curriculum? That research then was brought back to the group so that they could make a better decision. That was done in two board meetings; nothing else was on the agenda. And so the full board weighed in on those issues by having 30-minute discussions around each of those core things. And everybody got to talk about it.

Within nine months an entire strategic plan with very measurable outcomes and who was going to do it had been formed. And why was that? Because the board chair picked the right people. They did their work in between meetings. They brought good research to the table. Good information was there. It was talked about. The board was aligned and involved and it was transparent. They felt welcome and engaged. They made a real difference. Everybody worked on a piece of it.

When the board and the CEO are at loggerheads, how do you avoid instigating lasting divides?

Imagine the CEO of a hospital association. The CEO is very high functioning, very smart, been there for 15 years, knows all about what's going on, and is accustomed to leading that group. The board may or may not be very engaged because the staff is so strong. They are there because they are hospital CEOs but, with the exception of hiring and firing the CEO and looking at the budget, they're just not very engaged. That CEO at some point either already has or will run into a problem of stepping over the line with some board member. There's going to be some board member who's going to get very engaged, and they're not going to appreciate the CEO making all the decisions. They're going to ask, "Has the whole board really bought into this?" And it may be that that CEO may not be as transparent. The board chair or some board members need to surface and say, "This board has got to get stronger. We're not doing the right thing by our hospitals by not really doing generative thinking here." And the CEO is going to have to be willing to listen. The CEO could drive getting a stronger board.

If the board is very strong and the CEO is weak, that CEO is going to get fired because they can't keep up. The person will be seen as maybe good at, say, lobbying, but not good at interpersonal relationships with the board. It's the board's responsibility and the board chair's responsibility to do due diligence and take good care of that CEO. Go to them personally. Find out what the trouble is, what's bothering them. What's holding them back? It's the board chair's responsibility to be totally supportive of a CEO. The board chair then should talk to the board members about getting them a coach, a consultant, somebody to help them build on their strength and deflect their weaknesses. Maybe it's hiring another staff person who's better at something that that CEO isn't good at. I think so often the board thinks it needs to get rid of CEOs that aren't working, rather than helping them first.

How well trained are most boards in behaving in more proactive ways?

There aren't many. Very few really understand that dynamic. The more sophisticated board members do. It's the disregard and the lack of respect that occurs on either side, board or CEO, that creates this unhappiness, and unhappiness leads to not being supportive of somebody. If you don't like somebody, then you may not support them, but that is not the right thing for a board to do. They've got to help make them more likable. Find out what it is that's doing that.

How is the down economy changing the board-CEO relationship?

Both the CEO and the board have got to be in better alignment than ever. They've got to hone in on what their membership really wants and give it to them and stay close. The economy is only going to impact those organizations that are not really doing things well, and now is when you've got to do things better than you've ever, ever, ever done them. Associations cannot stub their toes with their membership because members are going to drop. When money is an issue, people are really looking critically at what they're doing. They're going to think, "Did I have a great relationship? Is my business helped by my membership here? Are my people learning? Have I got a strong network? Am I having a great experience?" If the answer is yes, they'll say, "I'm going to cut something else. I'm not going to cut this." 

Now Online Extra

In your book, you make a distinction between people who have had a lot of board experience, and who might be jaded about it, and younger board members.  Obviously it's important to bring in younger board members, but are there good ways to tell when a younger potential board member is enthusiastic about the specific nonprofit, or just enthusiastic about getting the line in a resume saying that they've done some board work? 

So many boards now are really wanting diversity in age, particularly so they don't end up with everybody dieing or falling off at the same time.  The thing with Generation X,that group is going to want to have some connection to their community.  This is a little bit canned, but for the most part they're at the age and stage where they're very busy.  They want to make a difference, but they want make a difference in their own backyard.  So they're probably going to be attracted, number one, to maybe a state or a regional or a local association. And in that situation they care a little bit less about who is on the board than they care about what the organization does. 

If that organization can in any way attract their family, a child let's say.  There's a local horticultural society here.  They've done a great job of getting the children of their board members engaged and involved in different ways.  That age group is looking for community, and they're looking for family relationships, and of course they're building their career.   So you have to think about, what is it that that association does or could do that relates to those things?  They're just not going to put up with not being listened to.  They don't want to be patted on the head like, oh, you little young person. 

I think you have to ask them, "What's important to you at this stage of your life?  We know you're busy and you're probably taking care of elderly parents.  You got young kids and you're very busy with your career.  Tell us about what you would like to get out of a board experience." Start out with something like that and then there's almost always something within any association that you can take them to. 

And millennials?

My goodness, it's so transparent with them. You can't hide anything.  They want to communicate almost totally electronically.  They think they could be president of the organization in two weeks. Right out of college they could be the CEO and they could do the job better than that CEO.  Still, I think it's a matter of understanding what they want and then finding something within your organization to go there.  And then I usually ask the question, "Is this something you could really get excited about?" To me, that's just my favorite question because they will tell you, "Well, yes I could because you know, boy, these are some people I really want to know." Or, "I'm really new to your cause but I'm willing to learn."  That tells you, you've got to have some other attractions besides just what you're doing. 

June Bradham, CFRE, is president of Corporate DevelopMint, a fundraising and strategic planning consulting firm for nonprofits. Email:

Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email:

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