Board Cafe: Should Staff Contact With the Board Be Restricted?

Board Cafe

Should Staff Contact With the Board Be Restricted?

By Jan Masaoka

The challenge: should board members have contact with staff independent of the executive director? For executive directors, this issue raises blood pressure faster than almost any other (except the board's having executive sessions--a future Board Café topic!). Executive directors often feel that independent board-staff contact undermines their authority, and creates the potential for staff to give misleading and undermining information to the board. Board members want to respect the authority of their CEO, but they also know that they can often serve best by meeting separately with staff on program or fundraising issues, and they value the independent viewpoint they can develop when not all their information is filtered through the executive director. Some boards regularly ask program managers to give presentations to the board on developments in the field and how the organization is responding. For example, an arts organization might ask for a presentation by the development director on the concept of "audience development," or a jobs program might ask the program director to speak to the board about welfare-to-work and how the agency is working with those programs. Some boards assign a board member to each program manager, although other boards feel that doing so can create "special interests" on the board.

RESTRICTING contact between board and staff usually results in suspicion on the part of the board and resentment from the staff. We suggest the following guidelines: 1. There are no restrictions on contact, but the executive director must be informed about meetings. (Example: a voice mail message from the Controller saying, "Hey, I just wanted you to know I'm meeting with the board treasurer next week to go over cash flow projections. Let me know if you have any concerns or things you want me to bring up.") 2. Board members can request information and reports (such as another copy of the budget or last month's client statistics report), but must stop short of directing staff work by asking for reports that are not already prepared (new reports can be requested of the executive director). 3. Personnel grievances must go through the channels specified in the personnel policies. Board members should direct staff complaints to those channels. 4. There should be a defined channel by which staff can raise concerns to the board about the way the executive director is running the organization. We suggest that such complaints and concerns be directed to the board president ONLY, not to any other board member. As representatives of the public, the board needs to know if staff has serious criticisms to raise, but it's only fair to the executive director AND to the board president for these to be handled in a defined way. The board president can choose to raise the concerns to the executive director, or to bring them to the board for investigation.

Original publication date: 07/13/1998

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