How to Be a Rockstar Board Chair

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Whether through a thoughtful selection process or luck of the draw, you find yourself the newly anointed chair of the board. Now what?

Let’s be honest. Our sector needs to do a much better job of equipping these vital volunteer leaders to be successful. As you’d expect, it’s common for incoming board chairs to have zero preparation for this important role. In a 2016 study by the Alliance of Nonprofit Management, over half the respondents reported they did nothing special to prepare for their role as chair of a nonprofit’s board. That’s a shame because an effective board chair can make a big difference in a nonprofit’s overall effectiveness. In the same study, those serving as chairs of their nonprofits indicated overwhelmingly that they learned primarily from observing prior board chairs. That makes sense as a practical way to gain knowledge about the “way the nonprofit does things.” But because it presumes that previous board chairs knew what they were doing, it is also troubling because of the risk (probability?) of institutionalizing not-so-positive practices. So, how can we improve the way volunteers learn to be rockstar board chairs? 

Some organizations use a leadership ladder approach by appointing or electing a vice chair to serve as “chair-in-waiting,” which enables him/her to learn along the way before assuming the chair’s responsibilities. Serving as a committee chair is another common step in a board leadership progression. There are also many opportunities (such as through state associations of nonprofits) for board members or aspiring board members to “take a class” to learn about board member roles and responsibilities, or to read articles and even books on the subject.  However, rather than leave the learning to a volunteer board member’s own initiative, why not be proactive and create a new practice that intentionally supports the success of your nonprofit’s current and future board chairs? Most boards “orient” their volunteer board members early in their tenure. Why not organize a special orientation for your nonprofit’s board chairs? Past board members/past board chairs may be excellent mentors since they’ve had some time to think about what they might have done differently, or what worked and why. One of the most significant roles of a board chair (or anyone in a leadership role) is building trust. Doing so requires respecting every other board member’s contribution (as opposed to rolling your eyes when other board members are speaking, as described in this post by Joan Gerry), and modeling gratitude for staff and donors, as well as modeling open communications between you and other board members, and between you and the CEO/executive director. Second is learning and managing the group’s dynamics. One of the most common mistakes that plunges group dynamics out of the positive and into the pits is failing to recognize and articulate a common purpose. That’s where board discussions about the nonprofit’s mission and strategies to accomplish it can be useful as team building and leadership affirming exercises. While not every new board chair will have the opportunity to lead the organization through a strategic planning process, every board chair can spend time leading the board through a process of revisiting the mission and affirming priorities for the organization to advance the mission. “Mission work” – whether simply asking board members to share what most excites them about the nonprofit’s mission, or more in-depth discussions about policy issues and the external environment’s threats to the nonprofit’s mission – is a great way for a new board chair to strengthen his/her leadership wings while building the board’s collective understanding, ambassadorship, and overall support for the organization.

Activities that board chairs commonly engage in that may be a new experience for certain board chairs, include:

  • Partnering with the CEO/executive director to shape the meeting agendas
  • Conducting the board meeting as its facilitator, rather than participating as an attendee
  • Serving as a spokesperson for the organization with the media
  • Providing both support and constructive feedback to the CEO/executive director
  • Attending community events as an ambassador for the organization
  • Joining the CEO/executive director on cultivation visits with major donors
  • Modeling the way in fundraising
  • Making time for his/her volunteer service a true priority.

Different board chairs will have different leadership styles, but all should bring their attention to ways to keep the entire board informed and engaged by building trust, and showing respect for each board member’s perspectives. At times, despite eagerness to make progress, the most important role of a board chair may be to recognize that not taking action prematurely is better than the wrong action: If more information is needed for a well-informed decision, then sending a proposal “back to committee” for more information demonstrates insightful leadership.  

Bottom line: Each rising board chair can benefit from focused, intentional thinking about what success will look like for his/her tenure as board chair: How will the nonprofit be different at the end of his/her term as board chair? Are there any practices that the board has let go of in the past that should be re-introduced? What about changing expectations about board attendance or timeliness of board meeting materials? Ask the CEO/executive director whether there are any practices that s/he’s been wanting to adjust. Now’s the time! A new chair may wish to review past results of board self-assessments and other surveys the organization may have collected, and also read through a few reports to funders, and testimonials from the community, in order to become more familiar with how important stakeholders, such as donors, clients, and volunteers, view the organization.

Here are some other ideas: There may be an opportunity through your local state association of nonprofits for your nonprofit’s board chair to gather with his/her peers for a peer-learning “board chair cohort.” That offers the chair the opportunity to speak candidly with colleagues from other organizations who may be facing (or have successfully resolved) similar challenges. If such a cohort doesn’t exist nearby, consider reaching out to some colleague nonprofits in the community to create one. Attend a nonprofit conference near you; spend one-on-one time over coffee or tea with each board member and ask them how you, the new chair, can make their service on the board more fulfilling? (or simply, “What’s on your mind relating to [name of nonprofit]?”) Final thought: Volunteers are busy people with other lives in addition to their service on a nonprofit board. Perhaps that is primarily the reason why co-leadership is an emerging trend. Or, perhaps this trend is due to the recognition that diversifying and “sharing” leadership can capitalize on the strengths of more than one leader. Co-directorships are not uncommon for nonprofit executive directors. Why not try co-board chairs, too? Here’s an article that explores the pros and cons: Building the bicycle as we ride it: Five thoughts on nonprofit co-leadership. (Nonprofit Quarterly).

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