Managing up, Managing Down

managing up managing down 1

Guest Blogger – Sarah Cohn 

When friction is reduced between the Board of Directors and the Executive Director, nonprofits honor their mission and deepen the impact. ​

Nonprofits produce their most effective work when leaders on the board, within the staff, and within the community are connected and communicating well.  Keeping these relationships fluid and open is important. This is easier said than done, however. ​

Like those dinner parties when there are too many cooks in the kitchen all trying to craft their own menus, Boards and EDs may run into communication, structural, or relational barriers as they work to achieve the best for their nonprofit. If approached with intentionality, honesty, and interest in developing a collaborative relationship, EDs and Board Chairs can work together to align their structural processes and practices with their strategies and tactics to move the organization forward.


Though we know that “form follows function,” we also know that when we step into a pre-existing leadership role, be it as a board or staff member, we must respond to the structures and systems within which that role exists.  It is important to:

  • Identify and discuss the historical, political, and social pressures that may play into how boards and organizations are structured
  • Understand how boards and staff communicate and interact
  • Understand how a board chair and an ED approach the board-nonprofit roles and responsibilities.

The relationship between Board Chair and Executive Director is critically important for setting the tone of how the board and staff will work together to advance the nonprofit. Beginning with open conversations, consider discussing why each person is working and advocating for the organization, what work styles they prefer, and establish clear expectations of each other regarding communication and areas of leadership and responsibility. From deepening the relationship to revisiting board functions and structures, board chairs and ED’s can find ways to effectively communicate and thrive.