Executive Directors can help boards make better decisions

Posted in executive director / board of directors / board meeting

Executive Directors can help boards make better decisions

Non-profit boards make a LOT of governing decisions. When the decision-making system is working well, the board might conduct its own research, develop committees, and have discussions. That’s the dream. The reality is it rarely happens that way.

Don’t expect volunteer board members to have the time of a paid employee.

Board members have their own jobs, families, and lives. Whatever their reason for becoming a board member, very few will willingly take on the position, wanting to add another 8, 10, 12, whatever, hours to their workweek. Board members can be committed to governing, even if they don’t have the extra time required to do their best work.

Best intentions aside, a board that doesn’t have time to be prepared or do research, risks having rushed conversations, and making decisions that are so far removed from the context of the non-profit, that they simply don’t make sense. Making decisions without due diligence causes stress on the non-profit’s leadership team. The executive director may feel angry by decisions that don’t align with the situation. In the decision-making rush, louder voices at the board table may take over, and quieter voices might feel less inclined to participate.

Create a briefing document.

One of the core jobs of an executive director is to support their board. This means so much more than providing gluten-free snacks or making sure the meeting paperwork looks nice. The executive director can use their time as a paid employee to conduct the research on the board’s behalf, to help board members make informed decisions. The research can be provided to the board, in the reference reading sent out prior to a meeting.

Reference information can be presented in a short (1-2 page) briefing document. The document can state the issue at hand, the type of decision needed, background information for context, additional research, and the ED’s professional recommended action, including rationale.  

Provide the research and a recommended plan of action.

An executive director does not have the power to sway a board’s decision and provides the briefing document to help the board learn all the research about the issue, without having to take the time to do the work themselves.

The executive director provides a professional recommended action, with rationale, because they are often the person with the closest positioning to understand how decisions will impact the organization.

A board will ultimately make its own conclusions, but having a thoughtfully researched and prepared briefing document will help a board make better, faster, and more informed decisions.

Work together to tackle even the biggest challenges.

When a board and executive director work together to make decisions based on solid research, everyone wins. The executive director can provide needed context or long-term impacts and feels confident the board has the information it needs. The board becomes well informed and confident to make decisions even if tight for time.

Over time, the board will feel empowered to tackle larger, more challenging issues, because they will come to learn they can rely on their executive director to provide full research and background information.

Not sure how to get started? Follow these steps...

The next time a decision is coming up on the agenda for a board meeting, executive directors can test drive the use of a briefing document to see if it helps the board make a better, and possibly faster, decision.

  • Title the briefing document to match the words and numbering on the agenda.
  • Write a few sentences to describe the issue.
  • Write a few sentences to describe the kind of decision needed.
  • Provide relevant background information, for context.
  • Provide any research that might impact the board’s analysis of the issue.
  • Provide a recommended action, with rationale.

What questions do you have?

The thought of an executive director providing research for board decisions might feel very uncomfortable for non-profits using a different system. A briefing document is a realistic tool for the leadership team to use to get started. What process do you use at your non-profit to support board decisions? Do you have questions? I want to know! Please use the form on the right side of the page to let me know.


Hi, I'm Christie. I help executive directors develop the systems and processes needed to run a non-profit.

I learned early in my career, there is no non-profit school. Browsing the internet for resources from big-city experts doesn’t provide practical solutions to balance the budget, write a work plan, or conduct an employee evaluation. Leadership development tips don’t really resonate when you are also taking out the recycling and cleaning the washroom.

I created ChristieSaas.com so non-profit leaders never need to wonder how to do the job – no matter how big or small that job is.

I have been the executive director of small-team, small-budget, non-profits for 20+ years. My experience isn’t theory. It is the real, operational, and practical solutions I use every day.

I love my work and I want to help you love yours too.

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