The Roles of Board and Staff in Association Leadership: Who Does What?

When thinking about the roles and responsibilities of association leadership, a good rule of thumb is that the board governs and the staff manages. But how exactly does that look? Are board members always leaders and staff members always followers? The short answer is “no.” In a strong partnership with the board of directors, staff plays a critical leadership role in making recommendations and providing guidance to the board in an effort to help the organization thrive.

There are many ways that staff provides association leadership, and while we can’t cover them all, here are some examples for a few key areas of association management:


The board of directors is responsible for the adoption of the policies for an organization. Policies are similar to “rules of the road” – for example, drive on the right, obey traffic signals and yield to pedestrians. Staff members, on the other hand, take the lead for recommending, implementing and monitoring those policies.

Looking at the membership of an association, the board of directors determines the types of membership categories and their related criteria (regular, student, company/organization, etc.), while staff reviews and vets applications to ensure this criteria is met. Staff further assumes a leadership role in the development and implementation of several association initiatives, including promotional materials, recruitment/retention campaigns, and programs that add value to membership, therefore allowing the organization and its members to prosper. Approval by the board of directors (or membership committee) may be a necessary step before implementation of ideas such as these, however, so staff needs to be familiar with and understand any related policies.

Annual Budget

The role of the board of directors is to approve an annual budget. By doing so, the board ensures that adequate resources are available for desired initiatives and general operations of the organization. Hosting an annual conference, for example, is a common activity for non-profits that usually has a sizable budget impact on the association. While the board must ultimately approve the conference budget, staff should take the lead in making recommendations to the board relating to necessary budget components such as registration fees, food and beverage costs, and speaker fees. This teamwork ensures the event is both rewarding for attendees and lucrative for the organization.

Vision, Mission, Strategic Plan

The vision and mission of an association provide it with its overall desired outcomes in both the short and long term. The vision of an organization refers to what it aspires to be/achieve, while the mission is a broad statement about how the vision will be accomplished. Take, for example, Tesla’s vision and mission statements:

  • Vision: To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
  • Mission: To accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass-market electric cars to market as soon as possible.

Finally, the strategic plan outlines the goals and actions necessary to accomplish the mission. Both the vision and mission are driven nearly entirely by founders of an organization and its board of directors. Meanwhile, the strategic plan is where staff should have a heavier load. It is the staff that interacts daily with members and is more in tune with their needs and wants. This makes staff members exceptionally qualified to make recommendations to the board on how to fulfill a vision and mission. Once the strategic plan is in place, staff takes the lead in implementing, assessing, and providing progress reports to the board.

In the end, a strong relationship between board and staff members is crucial. While each group has its unique roles, both must work together to provide leadership, input and guidance along the journey until the mission is accomplished.