As a lawyer specializing in representing nonprofit organizations, I get to experience the inner workings of a diverse group of nonprofit organizations. One observation I have made over the years is that board chairs can make or break a nonprofit’s performance.
The board chair can often mean the difference between a dysfunctional board that hinders the organization’s ability to do its work and a board that meets and exceeds the organization’s goals. Here are some of the top smart moves that some of the great board chairs I have worked with have in common:
What Makes a Great Board Chair
1. Understand the Role
A great nonprofit board chair understands that being named chair of the board does not mean they call the shots for the organization.
Rather, great board chairs understand that they are but one director with a special duty to set the agenda, lead the board meetings to ensure they are focused and productive, serve as the CEO’s link to the board, and reign in disruptive personalities when necessary. These duties give the board chair the ability to influence the culture of the board and by extension, the nonprofit organization.
2. Support the Chief Executive
Great nonprofit board chairs treat their CEOs like equals. Great board chairs know that the relationship between a board chair and a CEO is not a master/servant relationship and that their role is to support, not undermine, the CEO. Nurturing a supportive relationship with the CEO requires a board chair who is able to discuss sensitive issues in a forthright and open manner.
Great board chairs are also careful to respect the CEO’s authority to lead the staff. To properly support the CEO, great board chairs schedule regular meetings with the CEO to review board meeting agendas for upcoming meetings, discuss organizational issues and provide a board perspective on issues that arise between board meetings.
3. Think Big
Boards without great leadership can get bogged down in the minutia. The minutia includes the compliance and oversight responsibilities of the board. While it’s important to do these things well, it’s not the organization’s raison d’etre. great board chairs help steer the board clear of this phenomenon by keeping the board focused on their vision of the impact the board wants to make on the community the organization serves.
Great board chairs understand that focusing on the organization’s breakthrough goals rather than busy work keeps the board energized and engaged.
4. Lead by Example
Great board chairs know that if they want an engaged board that attends meetings, contributes and raises funds, and relentlessly promotes the organization, the place to start is with a self-assessment. Great board chairs understand that there is no better way to motivate fellow board members than to model the behavior you are aiming for.
5. Make Board Service Fun
A great nonprofit board chair realizes that volunteer board service should be a fun and rewarding experience. They get to know members of the board to find out what their interests and strengths are to help ensure each board member’s interests and abilities are being appropriately utilized.
Great board chairs also remember to schedule retreats and time for board members to get to know one another and the organization better.
Finally, great board chairs make sure the board has the opportunity to experience the work of the organization rather than just meeting to make decisions and review reports. Nothing is more rewarding and energizing than experiencing the organization’s accomplishments firsthand.
6. Know When It’s Time to Step Down
Being a great board chair is a big commitment of time, energy, vision, and resources. Few people can make that sustained effort over a period of more than a few years.
Great board chairs understand this and step aside in favor of a fresh leader when the time is right. To ensure a smooth transition, great board chairs know that they may need to mentor other board members to be able to successfully take on the role when the time is right.
These times are fraught with challenges and opportunities for nonprofit organizations. Great leaders know there is no better time to take on a leadership role with a nonprofit organization.
Ellis Carter is a nonprofit lawyer with Caritas Law Group, P.C. licensed to practice in Washington and Arizona. Ellis advises nonprofit and socially responsible businesses on corporate, tax, and fundraising regulations nationwide. Ellis also advises donors with regard to major gifts. To schedule a consultation with Ellis, call 602-456-0071 or email us through our contact form.