The Nonprofit Board/Staff Relationship

I do a lot of speaking and coaching on the topic of board governance and board responsibilities.  I also do a lot of ballroom dancing, and lately it occurred to me that the relationship of ballroom partners is a great example of how the relationship between a nonprofit’s board and staff should work.

In ballroom dance, the gentleman determines the step and the general direction in which it will go.  This is not accomplished by using an iron grip to force the partner to do a certain step or go a certain way.  It is accomplished by keeping a good connection with the partner, staying aligned with your center, and giving the partner room and permission to do her part of the job.

The woman, in turn, is responsible for executing the step, filling up the space offered by her partner, and giving the step shape and style.  This is not accomplished by making independent decisions about what step should be done or what direction should be taken.  It is accomplished by keeping a good connection, responding to the movements of the partner, and maximizing the opportunities your partner gives you.

When each partner does his or her job, it supports the other partner and the partnership.  The dancing flows, creativity grows, steps are more powerful and shapes are stronger.  Yes, sometimes one partner or the other might go further than expected and the couple may get off balance, but they regroup and use the opportunity to find the right balance for them as a team.  Mutual trust and individual confidence are the keys to success.  Along with hours and hours and hours of practice, but that’s another topic!

dancersTake a look at this picture and try to imagine how either of these dancers could achieve this line without the other.

Think about this dynamic in terms of the nonprofit board and staff.  The board determines the mission and vision of the nonprofit.  They are responsible for good communication with the CEO and staff (the connection), to ensure programs and services are aligned with the mission (staying aligned with center), and for giving the staff the room and opportunity to do their work by effectively delegating the running of the business (giving room and permission).

The staff is responsible for keeping the board informed of successes and challenges (the connection), responding to the strategic direction set by the board (the partner’s movements), and maximizing the opportunities presented to the organization for its programs and services.

When the board and staff each do their jobs, and each allow the other to do their jobs, the organization is strong and dynamic, powerful, and successful.  Yes, sometimes the relationship may get off balance, but with a good connection, staff and board can regroup and regain focus.  Mutual trust and individual confidence are the keys to success.

Remember your role, have confidence in your partner, and maximize your opportunities, for the good of the whole.

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