If the Board Chair Supports the Board, Who Supports the Board Chair?
In your nonprofit who would you say is the biggest cheerleader of the board chair? The answer might be: everyone and no one. Board chairs can often feel like it is just them running the show, which includes the board, board members and, most often, the executive. This reality should not be surprising.
But who should a board member consult when:
- A board member wants to discuss issues that will affect their ability to be present at the next meeting or sometime into the future or forever.
- One seeks to give a heads-up about a potential conflict of interest.
- There are issues they see within the board or committees.
And what about the executive? Who should they consult when they:
- Are facing serious program, operational, financial or potential legal challenges.
- Want to have a conversation about the state of the nonprofit, pending nonprofit matters or even what is happening externally that could affect the nonprofit’s success.
The Role of the Board Chair
The customary practice in all of those scenarios is the board chair. It is understood and accepted that the board chair facilitates board work and meetings. Also, the board chair is the primary link between the executive director and the board to support the board in fulfilling its fiduciary duties of care, loyalty and obedience, as well as responsibilities of policy, planning and evaluation. And depending on the need, the chair may represent the organization externally.
Bottom line — nonprofit board chairs have a lot to manage while bearing significant responsibility. Based on a survey of 635 board chairs, “most reported feeling supported (81%) most or all of the time, while 70% said they sometimes felt frustrated.” Of course, the survey did not dig deeper into precisely what “supported” really means, but my experience indicates that support looks more like enough members to make a quorum, no big internal conflict and an executive who values the chair’s contributions.
As is true for most professions, few individuals recognize a so-called calling to be a nonprofit board chair as they grow up. An equally few have training to take on the role of board chair. Reality is there are just not many ways, excepting experience, to prepare for the illustrious role of being a board chair. Most are called for the job having had little preparation or having read any of the instructional materials in print at the time (again, the survey verified this).
5 Tactics to Set Up Your Board Chair for Success
But prep is just one challenge. Once advancing to the position, board chairs are most often left to fend for themselves. But do they have to be? I think not. Here are some common-sense approaches to not leaving the chair to fend for themselves.
1. Long-Range Recruitment
Succession planning is really the first line of defense a board can take in preparing an individual to serve as board chair. A really long-range approach would be for a governance committee to think four to six years out and intentionally recruit individuals who can ultimately serve as board chair.
The next line of defense? Advance members to leadership positions within committees while intentionally increasing technical and process skills.
2. Redistribution of Chair Tasks
Members and especially officers are possible chair supporters to step up and distribute tasks otherwise presumed to be the responsibility of the chair alone (e.g., managing the strategic planning process and/or committee). The vice chair is in a particularly advantageous position to take on this task.
3. Co-Chair Arrangement
Consider a co-chair arrangement where each co-chair has a specific and unique set of responsibilities. Chairs do not have to do this job alone.
Current chairs can actively mentor the incoming chair assuming elections occur ahead of the transition. An effective mentor shows the incoming chair the ropes of the job, being sure in particular to invite the incoming chair to meetings with the executive. And of course, there are plenty of printed and online materials that can help prepare folks for leadership positions.
5. Support Group
Finally, chairs might reach out to other chairs in their sub-sector or even more broadly (chairing is chairing) and organize a chair support group. Community foundations are often enthused and may help in organizing and supporting such a support group.
A nonprofit board chair need not be lonely at the top. Long-range recruitment, advancement within committees, redistribution of chair tasks, co-chairs instead of a single chair, mentoring, and chair support group membership are all ways to make the board chair term not so lonely nor onerous. These common-sense activities may even make the board chair position desirable.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Related story: Recruit Your Way to an Outstanding Board