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Non-Profit Chain of Command Basics


Teresa Huff - The Challenges of Creating a Non-ProfitLet’s face it; chain of command can be a touchy subject when it comes to non-profit interactions. People don’t always understand the proper structure. Things can get messy:

Conference Room1.    Sandra’s best friend is a board member at the non-profit, so of course Sandra wants to tell the board member about a public relations problem she has noticed. Then they both start complaining to others about it and wonder why the advertising committee doesn’t do something about it.

2.    Tom, a board member, notices an issue with a staff member. Tom decides to talk to the staff person himself to let her know he doesn’t approve of her actions. She is caught off guard by the accusation and wonders if she should just quit.

3.    Carol, a volunteer, is struggling with an office procedure not being implemented properly so she mentions it to a board member. She thinks the board should discuss it at their next meeting. The board member brings it up at the meeting even though it’s not on the agenda. The director and board president are unprepared to discuss the issue because they didn’t realize it was a problem.

4.    John, a board member, doesn’t like a sub-committee’s decisions. John calls other board members to gather their opinions and points out the things he doesn’t like. He works hard to get more board members on his side.

Roles are awkward at best when the chain of command is broken because it undermines authority and creates dissension. Chain of command is important to keep order in an organization. This establishes proper procedures, how to handle conflict or issues that arise, and the correct person to approach from different roles.  Operations run more smoothly when this is honored.

New non-profits have well intentions but often miss the mark due to lack of information. In a proper chain of command, the volunteers and staff answer to the Executive Director; the Executive Director answers to the board, who is led by the board president. It is not advisable for board members to also serve as volunteers under the director because of the role switch that is required. This chart illustrates how non-profit chain of command should operate. The number of roles will vary depending on the size of the organization, but the overall structure is the same.

Non-Profit Chain of Command BasicsChart used with permission from

In the scenarios listed in the first paragraph, consider the following approaches instead:

1.    Sandra, a faithful donor, notices a problem with the non-profit’s advertising. She calls the director and explains her well-founded concerns. The director talks to the advertising committee and they design several good alternatives. Problem solved.

2.    Tom, a board member, mentions a staff member issue to the director. She explains that the staff member was following her instructions because of a special one-time circumstance with a client. Problem solved.

3.     Carol, a volunteer, sees that an office procedure is not working properly.  She approaches the director with her concerns. The director agrees that changes are needed. At the next staff meeting the group brainstorms ideas and develops a better procedure. Problem solved.

4.    John, a board member, doesn’t like a sub-committee’s decisions. John talks to the board president about his concerns. The board president gathers input from the sub-committee to understand their reasoning behind the decisions. He explains these to John and they agree that the best choices were made under the circumstances. Problem solved.

In any organization problems will arise and conflict is inevitable to some degree. Yet do you see how following the proper chain of command can minimize drama? This allows the non-profit to focus on doing its job instead of constantly putting out fires. When handled appropriately, conflict can be good for growth and development.

What benefits have you seen from following the proper chain of command?


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Teresa Huff, founder of Adeo Development Solutions, LLC, is a Development Consultant with a Master’s in Education. She works with schools and non-profit organizations to create a sustainable future for our community’s programs. Her services include grant writing and evaluation, strategic planning, curriculum development, and staff training. Stay tuned for her upcoming book Taking the Mystery out of Grant Writing. You can learn more at


  1. Janine Henson says:

    I have managed a non-profit as a volunteer until the last three years. I have a BSN degree and work out of my home office. I serve as VP under the President and founder of the charity. Our board has not been strong until the last year when we have been ramping things up including hiring an ED. Now we are struggling with chain of command and org. structure. The board president wants me to answer to the ED who does not know the company and is not medically trained. Our nonprofit does international medical mission work.

    How can we make this work. I feel she can manage the administrative arm in the office and I can manage the medical mission work. Can this survive?

  2. Tim says:

    I cam across your article on non profit chain of command. I have a few questions.

    1. Is it i proper to hire family members to serve on the board of directors?

    2. If the family is having family problems, marriage problems won’t this create a conflict of interests?

    3. Is there a universal set of bylaws that addresses certain issues on who control what?

    What if the executive director is on the board? is this ethical?

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