How to Build a Better Nonprofit Board: It’s About the Board Chair

New Ideas

Written by Diana Kern, Vice President of Programs, NEW

Diana RadioYes, positioning the right person as the board chair is key! This is because the chair has the greatest influence on how the board uses its time in meetings and between meetings, who will be on the board, and who will be groomed for future leadership. The Chair is the leader of the Board just as the CEO/ED is the leader of the nonprofit and the staff. The Chair is extremely important because this person must influence and inspire volunteer leaders.

The Chair needs to set an example for the volunteer peer group as well as show respect for the group’s time and volunteer commitment. A number of board members have shared with me that they do not want to be just “a check book.” Board members want to be honored for their time and support. Most board members will say a good board chair makes a big difference in the board’s effectiveness, their level of engagement and whether they stay inspired during their term.

I have seen organizations rise and fall as a result of the board chair’s effectiveness. Even the most extraordinary nonprofit ED/CEO cannot achieve the enterprise’s fullest potential without a good board chair as a solid partner.

Here are a few examples of how an effective chair uses his/her time for the greatest benefit to the nonprofit:

1. Understands and communicates the mission, vision and culture to other board members, and key stakeholders, including making the case for support.

2. Works in partnership with the ED/CEO to create board meeting agendas that are focused on key strategic issues, engages board members in productive and meaningful discussions, as well as decision-making. They manage meetings using a timed agenda, consent agenda or strategic agenda.

3. Identifies and develops board members for future leadership or officer roles. They embrace leadership succession planning and understand how vital it is for the organization’s longer term sustainability.

4. Works in collaboration with the Board Governance Committee and the ED/CEO to identify and recruit new board members from diverse backgrounds and perspectives who have the experience, relationships, time and willingness to be valuable to the organization. A good Chair understands that recruitment for current and future members of the board is just as important as raising money for the nonprofit.

5. Demands strong committee structures and requires committee chairs to hold meetings and produce minutes.

6. Is one of the leading financial contributors to the organization and sets the culture for 100% board member participation in annual giving. They track compliance with the giving policy and follows up with people. They ensure that a qualified and strong volunteer serve as Chair of the Development/Fundraising Committee.

7. Meets with each board member individually at least once a year to help each person discover how they can be most useful and to find out what is working or not working for them.

8. Creates a “trusting” and “open” relationship with the ED/CEO

My advice to board members, nonprofit ED/CEOs, and funders is this – the most important thing you can do to help build stronger boards is to support and develop those in the role of board chair and those planning to be board chairs. We need to give them our fullest support. This can and should include training those willing to lead in the Chair role. We talk about building strong nonprofit leaders in order to transform area nonprofits, but in order to strengthen the nonprofit sector in serving our communities, the board chair role needs just as much support as the role of chief executive.