When board members make operational suggestions…

Posted in executive director / board of directors

When board members make operational suggestions…

Every executive director gets them. Operational suggestions from individual board members. The requests usually happen away from board meetings and are almost always given under the guise of trying to be helpful.

One or two operational suggestions here and there will feel uncomfortable but won’t usually stop an ED from doing their job. If the board, however, has (for example) 12 members, and all of them start giving the ED one or two suggestions, the experience can very quickly turn into a situation where an executive director doesn’t know whose instruction to follow. Stress, frustration, and anger will set in very quickly.

One boss. The board.

In a traditional policy governance non-profit, the supervisory structure is usually set-up such that the board has only one employee, the executive director. What often gets forgotten is the supervisory structure looking the other way. The executive director has only one boss, the board.

The board is not merely a bunch of individuals. The board is a legal group. The board governs as a group, the board makes decisions as a group, and the board supervises the executive director as a group. All matters requiring the board’s input are brought to a board meeting where the issue is discussed, debated, and a final decision made by majority vote. The board functions together.

Away from a board meeting, individual board members have no authority to give the executive director suggestions, to make requests, or to demand changes. Board members can easily forget that they don’t have any special powers, and any expertise is not a short cut around making decisions at a board meeting.

Follow policy or decline the request.

What can an executive director do, when ‘helpful’ suggestions from individual board members pop up?

As old and tired as it feels, the first step is to check the governing policy. An executive director should be familiar enough with the governing policies to know if suggestions from board members, away from a board meeting, are allowed, and if so, for what topics.

If there is a policy, the executive director simply follows that process for the requested change.

My experience has been that very few boards have a policy that allows an individual board member to suggest an operational change outside of a board meeting. In the absence of a policy, an executive director is not obligated to do anything. They can very simply thank the board member for their suggestion, and remind that person that all requests, no matter how small, need to come from the board at a meeting.

Follow a 3-step system.

To prepare for the inevitable requests from individual board members, a non-profit executive director can create a 3-step system to follow.

STEP #1 – Receive the request. Check if policy exists. Follow policy.

STEP #2 – If no policy exists, determine if the request pertains to a legal issue. If so, contact the board chair for an emergency meeting.

STEP #3 – If no legal issue exists, ask the board member to forward the item to the board chair for policy discussion, at the next meeting.

After step #3, the board member will likely respond a little defensively about how they were trying to be helpful, or save a few dollars, or not trying to change policy, or a handful of other reasons. This is when a non-profit executive director smiles and repeats steps 1-3.

It sounds so simple, but calmly receiving random requests from individual board members is probably one of the hardest skills for a non-profit executive director to build.

When an ED is new to the job, there will be a lot of uncertainty and worry about declining a request because the board member is, after all, part of the group that is the ED’s supervisor. I’m frustrated to say, this feeling never really improves. Executive directors with 25+ years of experience will still have uncertainty and worry about declining a request from a board member. The only difference being, they have experienced it more times. 

You don’t need a thick skin; you need a script.

Rather than being uncertain what to do, when caught off guard by a random request from an individual board member, an executive director needs to have a little cheat-sheet in place. The 3-step process can be written out word for word to use in a reply email or phone call. Even if confronted in person, an executive director can put on their very best actor in a leading role persona, look up the script prepared well in advance, and respond calmly. Then, if necessary, take a little walk around the block.

Your turn.

Your turn. What’s your go-to for requests from individual board members outside of legally called board meetings? Do you stumble out a response or calmly decline the request? I want to know! Please use the form on the side of the page to let me know, send me an email, or message me on socials.


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.

© Christie Saas 2023 All Rights Reserved

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