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Who Is In Charge? Executive Director vs Board Chair Roles

Leadership roles in a nonprofit can be confusing. If the organization is in the early stage, they likely have an all-volunteer board who fill the traditional staff roles until funding is available to hire those positions.

Oftentimes, the question soon becomes “Who’s really in charge here?” The founder? The Board Chairman? The newly hired Executive Director. Often the answer is, “It depends.”

When someone starts a nonprofit, it’s because they are passionate about the cause. Frequently, they’re not thinking about the nuts and bolts of running an organization, they just want to fix the problem. Maybe they’ve run the charity from their kitchen table, and they believe no one can do it better than they can.

Imagine how hard it must be to create something from scratch and then, hand it off to a stranger, even a stranger you chose. I’ve seen founders who serve as board chairs, undercut the Executive Director so badly, that (s)he is no more than a figurehead, if (s)he stays. I’ve also seen founders plan for secession from the beginning. A founder who plans for, and trusts that their vision will live beyond them, has done their job.

If a newly formed nonprofit is to survive and do its good work, there must be a growth plan, following nonprofit sector best practices which establishes the roles and responsibilities for staff and the volunteer Board of Directors. Simply put, the Board of Directors is responsible for fiscal and management oversight. They approve the budget and they hire and fire the Executive Director. It is also their responsibility to provide financial leadership by personally donating to the organization.

The Executive Director is the public face of the organization and reports to the Board of Directors. He/she meets with major donors and oversees the financial management of the charity. He/she hires and manages all staff positions and is responsible for the daily operation of the organization.

With planning and mutual respect, a new charity can grow beyond the dreams of the founder to serve those in need and provide a stable work environment for its staff.


Michelle Crim, CFRE

Dynamic Development Strategies can help. We offer coaching and fundraising services for our nonprofit clients. We specialize in startup and smaller nonprofits because we understand your challenges. Please contact us for more information.

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