Nonprofit Leader Partnerships: How to Achieve the Right Balance

  • Crew Sunset II Jolene Knapp 2015

Like a well-played symphony, when nonprofit leaders partner well with their staff and volunteers, magic happens.  Leadership in the nonprofit sector requires a unique balance of communication, coordination, and collaboration whether it is in professional societies, universities or colleges, trade associations, or faith-based or charitable organizations. Though a board of directors or council holds ultimate legal and fiduciary responsibility, true success requires a solid partnership between the chief executive officer (or staff officer) (CEO / CSO) and chief elected officer, a board chair or council president.

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Shared leadership can catch new leaders off guard.

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Deb Nystrom & Jolene Knapp, at Wayne State University, 2015

Deb Nystrom & Jolene Knapp, at Wayne State University, 2015

Shared leadership can catch new leaders off guard. In fact, it’s a challenge not only for brand new CEOs, but for seasoned CEOs whenever newly elected leaders take office.  In working with my friend and colleague Jolene Knapp, for example, I learned about how she needed to become acquainted with a new board president every year, in her role as an Executive Director.  This added pressure to her role, and it also developed her agility in building new leader partnerships.    

Jolene teams with me as an associate in my own firm, REVELN Consulting, or when we work as senior partners with Ideas for Action. We teamed to co-write this post featuring her agility to adapt to build partnership among our nonprofit clients.  Nonprofit CEOs, like Jolene must develop partnered leadership as they help mentor new board chairs, board members, council presidents, and other volunteer leaders.

Nonprofit CEOs have special responsibilities to provide their own leadership to that partnership as they help mentor new board chairs, board members, council presidents, and other volunteer leaders.

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Co-creation is a powerful way to establish partnership.

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In this Part Two post of  “Seven Ways New Non-Profit Leaders Succeed The First Year on the Job,”- co-authored with my Ideas for Action, LLC colleagues, Jolene Knapp and Alan Davis, we offer solutions for nurturing a successful partnership.  Part One of the series recommended first steps of CEO listening and communicating with the specific titles of:

1. Listen to learn

2. Communicate

Below, we share details and links to resources on setting the leadership agenda as well as finding your rhythm with a new board chair or council president, as well as educating and encouraging volunteers.

3. Set a Leadership Agenda

When things go wrong between CEOs and their boards, it’s often the result of a failure to reach a common understanding of what constitutes success. Co-create the new leadership agenda. One of the best tools we’ve seen is a simple but powerful template for articulating priorities and goals for the next 18 months, including the respective roles of the new leader, board, and senior staff in achieving them. (See the Sample Leadership Agenda in this article from the Bridgespan Group.) Do not overcommit yourself or your staff. Leaders, members, and other stakeholders are excited about a new CEO; they want projects or tasks implemented that may have been pending for a while or they have new ideas.

CEO of Genesis Center, Flickr ~ The Bush Center

CEO of Genesis Center, Flickr ~ The Bush Center

It’s important to manage and control the agenda strategically. Establish a pattern of having strategic conversations with the board that set clear expectations about goals, roles, and ways to assess progress. In addition, it is important to assure that the chair/president is passing along information to the rest of the board.

4.  Establish a Rhythm for Building Shared Leadership with the Board Chair

In the complex world of governance, it’s important to find a communication pattern that builds solid leadership connection in your organization. One CEO we consulted said that in preparation for each new governance year, she facilitated an off-site leadership transition retreat with the incoming president, immediate past president, and new president-elect. (This will vary with the size and culture of your board.) In a private and relaxed setting, the goal was to orient the president-elect to current challenges, provide deep background on strategic priorities, and co-create a shared leadership vision for the year.

Co-creation is a powerful way to establish partnership.

Non-profit board planning, collaboration

Non-profit board planning, collaboration

Seek nonprofit or association leadership programs designed to strengthen the critical partnership between the chief staff officer and chief elected officer. Several close colleagues were fortunate to participate in ASAE’s CEO Symposium each year with their incoming board chairs. Similar opportunities are offered by nonprofit leadership organizations such as BoardSource and state societies of association executives like MSAE. Kicking off your new relationship by establishing the right habits and learning from industry experts is an investment that will reap huge dividends.

5. Educate Volunteers

Although not financially compensated, volunteer leaders must have position descriptions, obligations, accountability, and responsibility. It’s natural for a volunteer leader to apply the values, practices, style, and/or standards from their profession to the association or non-profit organization. They must understand that association/nonprofit management is a profession unto itself, with its own best practices, standards, etc. It’s the obligation of the CEO to educate them as soon as possible after they assume their roles as volunteer leaders. Effective training of volunteers will significantly assist the CEO in achieving success 

The SEVEN Success Factors, the Full List

Soft skills are as important as hard skills, industry-specific training and expertise.“Culture trumps everything” is a solid motto to guide new CEOs. Investing time in understanding history, processes, systems and personalities is critically important—no matter how strong the tidal wave of daily urgencies.

  1. Listen to learn

  2. Communicate, and communicate again

  3. Set a leadership agenda

  4. Establish a rhythm for building shared leadership with the board chair

  5. Educate volunteers

  6. Make allowances to take care of yourself

  7. Maintain your health

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The authors of this blog series, “Seven Ways New Non-Profit Leaders Succeed the First Year on the Job” are Alan DavisJolene Knapp, and Deb Nystrom, senior partners at Ideas for Action, LLC—a consulting practice that is driven by a passion to empower the potential of people and organizations. Their collective experience includes association, non-profit, and higher education leadership, governance, and management; organizational development; strategic planning; and executive coaching.  

Deb continues in her role as President of Reveln Consulting, LLC and welcomes an introductory conversation with you. Contact Deborah Nystrom at 734-846-5631, or email Deb, DebNystrom@REVELN.com

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