The role of a nonprofit board chair is often undervalued and overlooked. As a result, many nonprofit leaders find themselves stepping into a leadership role that has not been clearly defined or they have not been intentionally prepared to fill. Before outlining the four essential duties of a nonprofit board chair it is important to put the role into perspective. 

      • Not all organizations opt to use the title “board chair.” Common equivalents include: “President, Chairperson, or even Chief Executive board member.” Regardless of the title, the person spearheading a board is uniquely positioned to create impact or incite chaos within the organization’s leadership culture. It is the board’s duty to define the role of the board chair, fill the seat with the most qualified candidate, and seek ways to support the chair in strategic, mission-driven work.  
      • Purpose-driven organizations (Aka: “nonprofits”) are businesses and a board chair should be selected, screened, and onboarded with the same care that for-profits businesses employ.

“As of 2017, the most recent year on which data are available, U.S. nonprofits employed the third largest workforce of any U.S. industry, behind only retail trade and accommodation and food service, but well ahead of all branches of manufacturing. (John Hopkins Center for Civil Studies- 2020 Nonprofit Employment Report)

Even though the nonprofit sector employs over 12.5 million people, the nonprofit sector often fails to equip current leaders and identify successors.

A 2016 research report by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management revealed that of 635 nonprofit board chairs, “51% indicated that they did nothing specific to prepare to become a board chair. When provided with a range of specific ways they might have prepared for the board chair role, only 56% reported that they followed some intentional process.” (https://nonprofitquarterly.org/voices-board-chairs-national-study-perspectives-nonprofit-board-chairs/)

“One size does not fit all” in the nonprofit sector. However, board chairs typically fulfill the following four essential duties:

1- Lead the Board- The chair is responsible for leading by example. They should not only understand the legal and ethical roles and responsibilities of the board of directors but model them at all times. Chairs must proactively seek ways to stay informed, keep the board informed, and take timely action in the mission’s best interest. Often chairs negotiate committee reporting schedules, identify problems, assist the committee chairperson to resolve them, and if necessary, bring issues to the attention of the Board of Directors. representing the organization to the media. Many chairs are tasked with representing the organization on governmental or non-governmental organizations and committees. As the governing board’s chief officers, they are authorized signers of legal documents. In this capacity, they may be authorized or required to sign or countersign checks, correspondence, applications, reports, contracts, or other documents on behalf of the organization. 

Leading requires the chair to ensure that the organization has a strong sense of identity and direction.

Four core ways to ensure unity involve

          • Regular reviews of the organization’s vision and mission (Identity)
          • Propose policies and procedures to ensure sustainability and ongoing success
          • Ensure that structures and procedures are in place for effective recruitment and onboarding of new board members
          • Engage the board, staff, and stakeholders in strategic planning processes

                               Get your free strategic planning checklist here.

2- Facilitate meetings – Board chairs should partner with the Executive Director (ED) and executive committee to create meeting agendas. While an ED or other board members may play an essential role in drafting or reporting at regular board meetings, the board chair should have the communication and time-management skills needed to drive strategic conversations and action. 

3- Ensure Accountability – The chair may delegate specific duties to the Executive Director, board members and/or committees as appropriate; however, the accountability for them remains with the chair. Accountability assessments might include:

          • Regular board performance reviews
          • Regular performance reviews of the ED
          •  Oversite reviews to ensure the organization is adhering to all approved policies and procedures. (Government and internal)
          •  Resource audits to ensure the organization has the financial, human, and material resources needed to fulfill  its mission    
          • Based on the results of each assessment, the chair must ensure that leadership addresses failures and builds on strengths.

4- Support and Supervise the Executive Director – An organization’s board chair and the Executive Director essentially serve as “co-captains” of the organization.  A chair traditionally serves as the primary liaison between the board and the executive director. In this capacity, they (or their designee) 

          • Meet regularly with the ED
          • Ensure clarity of job expectations 
          • Conduct ED performance reviews
          • Serve as a sounding board and support system for the ED
          • Request feedback from the ED regarding board engagement

The four essential duties of a nonprofit board chair apply to organizations of any size. A board chair serves as the nexus of the organization and must possess the professional and interpersonal skills needed to unify and mobilize the board and staff. The position is paramount to an organization’s viability and should be defined and stewarded accordingly. 

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