Help Wanted: (Nonprofit) Board Chairs

If I had a nickel for every board looking for a good board chair...

Many boards are searching for board chairs. Even some nonprofits that have supportive board members are looking outside of their boards for board chair candidates who can lead their organizations to new heights.

Why is the choice of board chair so important? Would those of you who are successful in your business enterprises want to chair a board?

Why is a good board chair so essential to the success of the nonprofit?

Because on the one hand, the nonprofit board has the ultimate authority in establishing and achieving the organization's mission, vision, strategy, and revenue model; in addition to hiring the CEO; building a highly qualified, generous, and capable board; and ensuring the organization's legal and fiduciary integrity and compliance.

Yet on the other hand, the majority of the nonprofit's board members are unlikely to have expertise in the organization's field of work, and each board member probably spends barely 5-6 hours per month doing their voluntary board work.

As a result, one of the most important roles of the board chair is to (1) work in partnership with the nonprofit's CEO, and (2) focus the board's time and attention on governance work—specifically on the work that will matter most in advancing the particular organization in serving the community.

Additionally, the best board chair will have the ambition and ability to help "take the board to the next level." What does that mean? It means working closely with the chair of the Board Governance/Nominating Committee and the CEO to identify and recruit outstanding new board members—board members who will bring fresh and diverse backgrounds and perspectives, be committed to the organization, and bring excellent experience, resources, and support to help envision and achieve the nonprofit's greatest potential. It also means working with the board to establish clear and high expectations for their support.

 

What's it take to be a good board chair?

The board chair that will accomplish the most ambitious results is best at the following:

  1. is genuine, compelling, and articulate in making the case for the organization
  2. helps foster a collaborative CEO/Chair relationship. Through trust, mutual respect, and clear roles, the CEO and chair will maximize the organization's success, galvanize the board, and attract outside support as well.
  3. role models generosity in making financial contributions, and is comfortable asking others to contribute funds, expertise, and other valuable assets
  4. leads board meetings well, encouraging people with diverse perspectives to participate in discussions, while also keeping the board focused on board governance work. Although the chair and CEO will create the board meeting agenda together in advance, the meeting is led by the board chair. The chair needs to know when to open up the conversation and when to wind it down in order to bring a matter to a vote, summarize the comments and move the matter to the right committee for further deliberation, or refer the matter to the staff.
  5. recognizes and thanks board members who have made financial or other meaningful contributions since the prior board meeting. The CEO can be helpful by making sure that the board chair is fully aware of the various ways that particular board members have been particularly helpful. The board chair might also want to recognize the CEO for accomplishments on behalf of the nonprofit.
  6. makes it very clear to board members that the organization needs each person to add value. The chair has a few opportunities to do this: in board meetings, in conversations with committee chairs in helping to clarify the roles of the committees, and in one-on-one conversations in between board meetings. Here again, by collaborating with the CEO, the board chair will be most effective in understanding what the organization needs, and in helping to elicit support from each board member.

Key qualities: integrity, vision, and intellect. A complete description of the specific duties of the board chair is here.

Isn't being board chair a big role for one person?

Yes, that's why it's important to identify and recruit a strong cadre of leaders including a vice chair, treasurer, and secretary of the board to provide some balance and support. It's valuable to the organization when the officers bring diverse backgrounds, perspectives, areas of expertise, and networks of support.

Furthermore, it's helpful to engage excellent board members as committee chairs to further bolster the board leadership and to create a potential pipeline for future board chair candidates.

And it's customary and often useful to establish an executive committee comprised of the officers and committee chairs, and of course attended by the chief executive.

Should a board go outside to identify and recruit a chair?

It's certainly ideal to have a qualified chair candidate among your current board members. It does happen, however, that boards need to reach outside of the board to find the right person. In faciliating board chair searches, I prefer involving the board in the process.  It's also best to seek to identify a candidate who has some connection to the nonprofit. For example, someone who has been a donor, an executive from a company that funds the organization, a past board member, or member of the "friends committee."

I have seen this work well in two cases where the people who were recruited had connections to the nonprofit and also board chair experience. In one case, the person was a donor, and in the other case, the person's company was a donor. In both cases, the people were already very familiar with the nonprofits, and highly respected individuals who clearly could advance the boards and organizations to new heights. And, in fact, they did.

It will be essential to put any outside candidate through a rigorous interview process. Take the person on site visits. Ensure that the person is passionate about your mission, and that they clearly understanding the role of the chair and the board's expectations. In both cases that I mention above, there were job descriptions for chair of the board, customized for the particular board.

How does a board make sure it has good board chair candidates in the future?

Most of us learn the hard way. If you are stuck once without the right person for your board chair, you learn to start identifying and recruiting new board members whom you think will have leadership potential, not just people who will make good board members.

You also start to give new board members some leadership responsibilities as early as possible in order to engage them, develop them, mentor them, test them out, and move the right people up the pipeline.

Why would you want to be a board chair?

 

You will

  1. have the ultimate leadership experience in ethics, accountability, group dynamics, and crisis management and communications
  2. be a leader to your peers in envisioning an organization's greater potential, and creating and achieving the revenue model for success
  3. play an extraordinary role in shaping and transforming an organization to advance a cause that you believe in
  4. be an articulate and compelling advocate among private and public sector leaders for a cause that you believe in
  5. learn more than you ever imagined
  6. become more effective in your job and more valuable to your company
  7. look back after the 2, 3, or 4 years that you served and know that you have improved the community and the lives of many people

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