The Governance/Support Model for Nonprofit Boards

Board Cafe logoMuch of the confusion about board responsibilities is confusion between what the board does (as a body) and what individual board members should do. Most of the prescriptions for boards confuse the two, saying "The board should _____" without making the distinction. This straightforward model for boards has been embraced by thousands of boards across the United States:

There are two fundamentally different types of nonprofit board responsibility: governance and support. Depending on the responsibility, three types of switches occur:

  • Who's the boss

  • Whether the board is acting as a body or as individual board members

  • Who the board is representing

Let's look at both types of responsibility, and the three types of switches.

The governing role

On one hand, the board, acting as the representative of the public interest, governs the organization. In this role the board has several key responsibilities, including financial oversight, hiring/evaluating the executive director, and making the Big Decisions:

The support role

On the other hand, board members also act to help -- to support -- the organization:


The first switch: the board as a body vs. board members as individuals

At first, these roles -- and the distinction between governance and support -- may appear obvious. What makes the distinction both profound and practical is that it reflects the switch between the board as a body compared with board members as individuals. Witness:

In its governance role, the board acts as a body. Example: the board chair doesn't hire the executive director. Instead, only the board as a whole can hire the executive director.

But on the other hand, the board doesn't make connections with donors; board members as individuals do. Think of it this way: the board doesn't raise money; board members raise money.

Looking again at the governance and support roles, they are the same split as between what the board can do as a whole, and what board members do as individuals. This simple distinction clarifies the role confusion by providing a useful framework:

To use another example, although the board as a whole is responsible for evaluating the executive director, the board chair as an individual doesn't have the authority that a supervisor has with a subordinate. The board chair is not a supervisor, but instead acts as a convener and leader for the board, which as a group provides feedback and direction to the executive director.

In revenue, the board as a whole approves a strategy for funding, one that probably includes a mix of earned income and donations. Board members as individuals help with one or more of those vehicles (or take on other individual roles).

Who's the "boss"? Who's the boss now?

This model also elegantly answers the question: who's the boss? When the board is acting as a body -- in its governance role -- it's the boss. But when board members are acting as individuals, they act at the direction of staff.

For example, if a board member tells the executive director to paint her office a different color, the board member is acting as an individual, and the executive can take or ignore the advice. But if the board were to vote that the executive must paint her office, she must.

As another example of how we instinctively understand that as individuals board members work at the direction of staff: if as a board member, you show up a street fair to help with the organization's booth, you instinctively ask the staffperson there: "What's my assignment?"

When board members volunteer as hospice workers, as cooks, as docents, as ushers, as classroom speakers . . . they will typically be trained by staff, assigned by staff, and have their work monitored and evaluated by staff.

But when the board acts as a body, it acts to provide direction and oversight for staff.

In other words, the "boss" changes, and this model reflects the "role switching" that board members do. For example, an individual board member may meet with the organization's accountant to lend expertise in formats for cash flow statements. In this role, the person can make suggestions, but the accountant reports to the executive director who can choose not to take that advice.

In contrast, if the board were to vote on a particular format for cash flow statements, the staff would be required to go along.

The third switch

On the outside looking in— or, on the inside looking out?

When acting in its governing role, the board represents the interests of the community. It asks: Is this organization using public and private resources to benefit the community and the public? In a sense, the board stands in the community, looking at and speaking to the organization. It represents the community and speaks to the organization in the community's voice.

But at the same time, board members represent the organization's interests to the community. Board members individually act as ambassadors from the organization to the community. Board members promote the organization's work in the commu¬nity, build support for the organization's


So when we act as a body in our governing role, the board seeks to hold the organization accountable to its constituency and to the public. It asks the question: "Who is our constituency, and what do they need our organization to be doing right now?

In contrast, when acting in our support roles as individuals, we ask the question: "What help from the community does this organization need right now?"

In short

Because so much of the technical assistance field literature is about how to help the organization and its executive succeed, the role the board plays in governance has been overshadowed. The professionalization of nonprofit work has elevated the respect and authority of staff. Taken together these developments have left board members wondering if they're just supposed to raise money, be directed by the executive, and be "engaged" (an abstract term difficult to understand tangibly).

By clarifying the distinction between governance and support, the framework is laid for boards and staff to understand the roles that the board plays as an entity, and the roles that board members play as individuals. This framework helps keep authority and responsibilities clear, thereby freeing up both board members and staff member to tackle the particular strategies and questions for their organizations and communities.

Jan Masaoka is editor-in-chief of Blue Avocado, and a national thinker and writer on nonprofit boards. This article is adapted from a chapter in The Best of the Board Cafe, Second Edition, published by Fieldstone Press, and available on (when ordering be sure you get the Second Edition).

Comments (23)

  • Jan, thank you for this! I think you make the difference really clear - and this distinction is so important. In our work with boards of directors, we often talk about how board members wear different hats - one as a trustee (governance) and then one as a volunteer (support). What is often missing is that we don't state the accountability is also different - and most board members do not ever comprehend they are accountable to staff in the support role. We have done ourselves a huge disservice in not-for-profit organizations by failing to ensure all volunteers ARE actually accountable. I believe "society" honestly thinks if you are a volunteer you are not responsible for doing the job. You really don't have to, as it is voluntary. And we are particularly wishy-washy on this part about changing roles of members of the board of directors. Colleen Kelly Vantage Point Vancouver, BC, Canada

    Sep 21, 2011
  • Thank you for this, Colleen! I like your use of the terms "trustee" and "volunteer" as ways to distinguish the roles. Excellent point. Jan

    Sep 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Terrific article Jan. This does the best job of clarifying the role of the board as a whole and as individuals and is very timely for our organization. Our model is very lean staff and actual program done by volunteers. The success of this model depends upon a clear understanding of the difference between the board as a whole and as individuals. I just forwarded the link to our board. Thank you.

    Sep 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Terrific article Jan. This does the best job of clarifying the role of the board as a whole and as individuals and is very timely for our organization. Our model is very lean staff and actual program done by volunteers. The success of this model depends upon a clear understanding of the difference between the board as a whole and as individuals. I just forwarded the link to our board. Thank you.

    Sep 21, 2011
  • As I like to advise my board clients: * as a board you are the boss of everybody * as an individual board member, everyone is the boss of you [this does require a little clarification - but it does get the point across - especially with board members who want to boss the ED and other staff members around] Alonzo Villarreal, Jr. Transformation Strategies

    Sep 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Hi Jan, Very good article. Many board members of small non-profits join the board to "make a difference" in the community. As such, they often become frustrated with the level of effort required in dealing with the governance issues. They don't think they have as much impact if they are simply volunteers, which is not necessarily true. Initial orientation and periodic board development activities seem to help, but the tendency to confuse roles seem to be dependent to a large degree on the particular board, and the effectiveness of the chair. Lloyd Gardner, Foundation for Development Planning, Inc.

    Sep 21, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Beautifully done job of pointing out the varying roles that volunteers serve in an organization, and helping to clear up the confusion that exists when "service" volunteers are also "governance" volunteers. But then, that's not a surprise from you, Jan. I wonder whether there is a third category to consider, that being when the board acts as a body but in a management and not a governance capacity. I would place in this capacity a management responsibility to turn oversight into practice through operational policy, job descriptions, task lists, etc., that are not the responsibility of an individual in a support role.

    Sep 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Clear and succinct as always. Maybe the only aspect needing a bit of additional comment is the role of board committees. Much of the helping by individuals occurs in, or through, committees. But committees can also be of two types-- those that do policy analysis and make recommendations to the whole board (e.g. finance), and those that implement decisions either working with management (in which case they are subordinate to management) or instead of management (because in many small nonprofits there are few staff or only volunteers).

    Sep 22, 2011
  • Thanks for another clear and thought-provoking examination of this crazy beast we call a board of directors. Excellent framework for helping board members think about their jobs! Kim Vanderwall, St. Paul, MN

    Sep 22, 2011
  • Thank you, Kim! Jan

    Sep 23, 2011
  • Hey Jan, Just reading the article on governance by boards/individuals in last month's letter and appreciated the information. Our County has a unique situation where a non-profit board and the local government are working together to operate a local non-profit child care center residing in a county building. Do you have any articles or research on these two enities working together? Thanks so much. Debbie

    Oct 19, 2011
  • Hello Kim, Thanks, it is especially helpful when you have met the individual submitting the comment. I've worked along side of your husband when he held a exective management position and valued his input on board/staff relationships. I still serve on several different board in the Metropolitian area and yes there is much to be said about being a title holder! Renee Sayles, Minneapolis, MN

    Nov 14, 2011
  • Anonymous

    How does this system reflect what happens when you have a large board and a tiny admin staff of one, and the board actually has to run the organization. Are we the only ones?

    Sep 25, 2011
  • Your article on "The Governance/Support Model for Nonprofit Boards" is excellent. We would like to include it on our website for new board members (the website is restricted to board members and staff), to help educate them about their new role(s). How would we go about getting permission to do that?

    Sep 26, 2011
  • Hi David --

    Permission is granted as long as you follow the criteria below. Thanks for asking. We're proud to serve as a "wire service" for so many nonprofits.

    Here are the Blue Avocado reprint guidelines:

    Blue Avocado and Board Cafe articles are copyright CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, all rights reserved.

    With permission, articles can be reprinted at no charge by nonprofit organizations that agree to the following:

    • Send us your request in writing. We will try to respond within 24 hours. Email your request to the Blue Avocado editor.
    • At the top (or near) the reprinted article, use the following or similar wording: This article is reprinted with permission from Blue Avocado, a practical and readable online magazine for nonprofits. Subscribe free by contacting the Blue Avocado editor or visiting
    • If you are reprinting an article in a print newsletter, please mail two copies of the newsletter to: Editor, Blue Avocado, 731 Market Street, Suite 200, San Francisco, CA 94103
    • If you are including an article in your own e-newsletter or posting an article to a blog or listserv, please "copy" the link or post to the Blue Avocado editor.

    This can also be found at :

    Sep 26, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Greetings Jan & All, If you knew how timely this information is to a favored org, you would call yourself psychic! :-) Warm mahalo!

    Sep 27, 2011
  • Thank you for making our day! Jan & All

    Sep 27, 2011
  • This is a useful and easily digestible article. The extensive list of kudos here confirms the "soft spot" this topic has been in our industry for so long. Thanks so much for the concept and the structure. Lou Cartier Greeley, Colorado

    Sep 28, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Now if only we can convince our committees to follow a plan under the direction of staff. Sadly many of our committee members (most of whom are board members) tend to brainstorm at EVERY meeting, despite an agenda and work plan. They rarely take ownership of their ideas and get offended when staff is too busy to jump at every suggestion. What a day it will be when people are actually held accountable for their ideas. I could go on. In any case, thank you for distinguishing these different roles so concisely.

    Sep 28, 2011
  • Thank you Jan - I've been training new board members for years about the different hats we wear - this makes the concept much clearer. I model a sports team hat when describing governance work and a wizard hat for when we serve as volunteers. Now I just need to think what kind of hat to wear for the boss hat! Carolyn

    Sep 29, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I found this very helpful. As a new CEO I was aware that my relationship with boardmembers shifted when I was dealing with them one to one. I also knew they evaluate my work and make "big" decisions but I did not have this framework to identify the ebb and flow of our relationship. Thank you Jan.

    Oct 05, 2011
  • Anonymous

    This is a great article - I would like to keep this and share it with my Board of Directors

    Oct 26, 2011
  • Jan: Really great and creative way to show the differences. Congratulations!!

    Nov 17, 2017

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