The relationship between Chair and CEO within nonprofits: What does the literature say?

On Friday 29th and Saturday 30th June 2018, Cass CCE and Roffey Park will launch a two-day programme targeting nonprofit CEO and Chair pairs.  ‘Partnership for Impact: investing in the Chair-Chief Executive relationship’ will enable Chairs and CEOs to spend focussed time building their relationship. The programme is inspired by leading research and driven by the thinking of key players in the nonprofit sector.

Grounded in research on trust

The programme has at its heart Roffey Park’s research on trust; we will use this as a basis for a broader exploration about both the nature of the relationship and its wider influence across the organisation and beyond.

Trust is a core theme in academic and practitioner governance literature.  Though somewhat sparse when compared with studies from other sectors, there is growing body of literature about the relationship between Chairs and Chief Executives of nonprofits that:

  • Describes the nature of the relationship, and explores its characteristics
  • Prescribes or offers a view on what the relationship should be like, and what the processes and behaviours are that support effective interaction
  • Gives guidance (or sometimes ‘tips’) on what can be done to improve the relationship

‘A successful relationship is about negotiating a balance’

‘A Question of Balance’[1] written by two of our programme speakers, Ruth Lesirge and Rosalind Oakley, Chair and Chief Executive of the Association of Chairs, sets out that a successful relationship is about negotiating a balance across a range of spectrums. There isn’t a right answer or formula because there are too many variables at play: lifecycle of relationship and of organisation; market forces and drivers in the wider environment; individual capabilities, capacity and preferences.

Continual negotiation and recalibration is key

Finding the right balance, contingent upon on your context, is fundamental.  Wendy Reid and Johanne Turbide[2], whilst looking at the wider relations between trustees and staff, highlight three dilemmas that will also apply to the Chair and Chief Executive, and advocate negotiation and recalibration around these dilemmas as the relationship evolves and context changes:

  1. Effective realisation of mission versus managerial efficiency: the power of mission can influence risk assessment and financial prudence; mission related power favours executive leadership; too much focus on managerial efficiency can put organisation before mission, and limit impact.
  2. Trust versus control: trust is a valuable counter to control (and distrust), but control as a governance mechanism brings structure and assurance.
  3. Internal perspective versus External perspective: an internal focus is required to build internal knowledge and oversee performance, but only with an external perspective can we anticipate issues and give account to key stakeholders and networks.

A correlation between trust and social capital

Mary Hiland[3] outlines a link between trust, how the Chair and Chief Executive work together, and the social capital[4] they generate.  The key is to be explicit and purposeful in ‘trust building’, she says — design it, invest time in it and don’t leave the development of trust to chance. Increasing diversity of interaction is important too — from fact sharing and sharing feelings to real ‘give and take’. As trust and confidence in each other’s competence grows and a mutual respect is developed, each starts to really identify with the other. All of this leads to a shift from managing together, to leading together, resulting in increased social capital: better information, new connections and networks, energy, synergy, confidence, productivity and better decisions.

A relationship where neither are dominant can lead to greater organisational success

Jager and Rehli[5] explore how a cooperative power relationship between the Chair and Chief Executive, where neither are dominant, leads to greater organisational success.  They suggest a focus (from the point of selection) on ensuring that the capabilities of each are equivalent (that is, the capability to execute strategies for the nonprofit), and that their preferences are complementary: where they are capable of ‘mutually counterbalancing and monitoring their respective preferences’ (2012:234).  An exploration of capability and preference would seem to be a very good basis upon which to build and maintain a relationship, and could certainly lead to greater understanding, increased likelihood of adapting to each other’s behaviours, and thus an increased ability to exert more positive influence over others.

Underpinning much of the literature is the intuitive belief in a correlation between an effective Chair-Chief Executive relationship, an effective board, and an organisation that is successful in delivering impact for beneficiaries. Certainly, our experience in carrying out board reviews is that a poor relationship has a negative impact on organisational effectiveness.

The opportunity for the Chairs and Chief Executives attending Partnership for Impact to take time out on their own to explore, negotiate and invest in their relationship has been built into every session: learning together in a positive and stimulating environment, and converting this learning into action.  The programme will provide a concrete opportunity to define both the partnership and the impact this most critical of relationships can have.

Read more about the Partnership for Impact programme. If you have any questions, please email

[1] Oakley, R and Lesirge, R (2015) ‘A Question of Balance’.  Association of Chairs.
[2] ‘Dilemmas in the Board-Staff Dynamics of nonprofit governance’, in Cornforth, C and Brown, W.A Editors (2014) ‘Nonprofit Governance: innovative perspectives and approaches’.  Routledge.
[3] Hiland, M (2006) ‘Effective Board Chair - Executive Director Relationships: Not about roles’.  The Nonprofit Quarterly.  Winter, pp49-50.  Hiland, M (2015) ‘The Board-Chair Executive Director Relationship’.  OD Practitioner. Volume 47(1)
[4] The resource or benefit created as a result of interpersonal relationships
[5] Jager, UP and Rehli, F (2012) ‘Co-operative Power Relations Between Nonprofit Board Chairs and Executive Directors’. Nonprofit Management and Leadership. Volume 23(2).