The Board Chair: 5 Strategies for Leadership Beyond the Board Room

by | Oct 22, 2019 | Board Development

Everyone knows that board officers, especially the nonprofit board chair, holds one of the top leadership positions. However, many organizations admit that their board chair does little more than serve as a facilitator at the monthly meeting.

This article will explain the key roles and responsibilities of the nonprofit board chair (aka board president) and five intentional strategies to build a culture of integrity and long-term success.

Every nonprofit organization needs a charismatic leader, a board chair, to keep the vision alive. Along those same lines, healthy organizations will nurture positive energy and leadership while creating a strong board of directors.

The most fundamental truth about an effective board chair is that the individual must clearly UNDERSTAND the role, possess the SKILLS to execute key functions, and be WILLING to lead by example. That magic combination of understanding, skills, and willingness has the power to transform the entire dynamic of the governing board and the organization.

Federal and state laws require that nonprofits duly elect board members and clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the officers. The minimum number of board members required varies from state to state. To find out how many board members are required by your state click here.

Some states only require one officer, who might hold the title of “director, chair, president, or CEO.” While there is no one “right way of doing things” there certainly are best practices for a strong leadership model. A board chair will be more successful if they are supported and held accountable by other capable board members.

The duties of a board chair include but are not limited to the following:

1. Preside at all meetings of the Board of Directors
2. Appoint committee members
3. Exercise general oversight of the organization’s business transactions
4. Perform such other duties as may from time to time be assigned by the Board of Directors

It sounds so simple, right?

Effective leadership goes beyond the board table. The board chair is uniquely positioned as a liaison between the executive director and the governing board and they must tight walk that line of “leadership vs. management.”

Best practice suggests that the board’s job is to “govern”, and the staff’s job is to “manage” the organization (if the organization is staff-led and not volunteer-led).

That being said, at the end of the day, who is “managing” the board?

Many nonprofit directors and staff members express frustration at the lack of engagement and follow-through from their board members. In fact, “only 33% of nonprofits report that their board members are actively involved in advocating for their missions, and many organizations aren’t advocating at all.

This means that a staggering 67% of board members are simply warm bodies in a seat!

Executive directors are caught in a precarious position as they find themselves trying to “manage” the board while walking on eggshells since the board is their boss!

While the board is the governing body of the organization, there must be accountability.

Who better to hold the board of directors accountable for their action or inaction than the board chair?

We have compiled a list of practical steps for Board chairs who could use a little extra guidance as they navigate an incredibly challenging volunteer leadership role.

Five Strategies for Leadership Beyond the Board Room:

1. Cultivate Relationships

It is difficult to build consensus if you do not know the people around you. An effective board chair will actively work to cultivate a relationship with key individuals in the organization.

  • Schedule social time so board (and staff) can interact. This can be as simple as hosting coffee, pizza, or a potluck shortly before or after a board meeting.
  • Get to know your executive director or lead staff member. This might involve a site-tour, a staff appreciation lunch, or simply a coffee at the office.
  • Connect with community members, volunteers, and clients who are engaged in your mission so that you understand how the community views the organization, not just how the board and staff view it!
  • Build an alliance and/or put some checks and balances where needed with “THAT” person to prompt more engagement from other team members and ensure the integrity of the board governance/voting process.
2. Engage in the Mission

As the board chair, the community and your fellow board members are watching to see if you are “walking the talk.” If you are not, that automatically grants everyone else a license to shirk their duties as well. It is not enough to sit at the head of a table if you rarely roll up your sleeves to help grow the mission.

  • Complete a comprehensive orientation process to gain a clearer perspective on the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT).
  • Commit to volunteering for programs or services that allow you to engage with the individual’s your mission impacts.
  • Serve as ambassador by sharing your organization’s mission with local civic clubs, local government officials, businesses, media, and individuals. Start with your hot market (your immediate friends and family) then move on to a warm market (the friends and family of your inner circle), then take the leap and seek new prospective supporters from outside your circle.
  • Commit to volunteering for programs or services that allow you to engage with the individual’s your mission impacts.
  • Serve as ambassador by sharing your organization’s mission with local civic clubs, local government officials, businesses, media, and individuals. Start with your hot market (your immediate friends and family) then move on to a warm market (the friends and family of your inner circle), then take the leap and seek new prospective supporters from outside your circle.
3. Protect Your Organization’s Assets
Consider yourself a steward of the organization which means it is your job to nurture the organization so that it can grow and thrive.
  • Preserve the integrity of your organization by ensuring that your board seats are filled with competent, passionate individuals, who have the organization’s best interest at heart. Do not allow the on-boarding and off-boarding process to become passive but rather, develop an intentional exercise in developing a strong leadership team.
  • Care for your staff and volunteers. Do not contribute to the nonprofit culture that permits overworking staff and underpaying them simply because it is a “mission.” The heart does not pay the bills, and if your employees do not receive a competitive paycheck in a timely manner, they will not be able to pay theirs! In addition to performance reviews, be sure to connect with staff to address potential burnout. Consider offering a mental health day, a holiday bonus or performance-based pay raise to demonstrate appreciation and inspire long-term employment.
  • Keep updated records on all physical and intellectual property so that you know what the organization has and what it needs to achieve goals. Knowing what you have and where it is located also contributes to smooth leadership transitions at both the staff and board level.
4. Organize and Initiate
The buck stops with the Board chair. If board members commit to a task and do not follow through, it is not the staff’s job to hold them accountable. Consider ways that you can outline key tasks, upcoming events, and ways the board can engage.
  • Work with the board and staff to create an organizational calendar that breaks down key tasks/events. If your annual fundraising event is in June, all planning deadlines should be noted on that calendar so that everyone is on the same page. This calendar will also help prioritize talking points and action items at your board meetings.
  • Create a file-sharing tool to ensure that your fellow board members have access to key documents such as historical documents, program overviews, board meeting minutes, volunteer application forms, job descriptions for board/staff, impact reports, and more! DropBox is popular but here are 30 other free file sharing alternatives.
  • Make sure regular meeting dates are scheduled well in advance, reminders are sent out in a timely manner, and board members have time to review the agenda and all relevant documents well before the meeting date!
  • Review policies and procedures to make sure they are all current. If the organization’s bylaws, strategic plan, fundraising plan, personnel handbook, conflict of interest policy, or any other key operating policy is outdated, communicate with the board and schedule a time to update them.
5. Partner with Your Executive Director (ED)
The board chair and executive director relationship is one of the most critical because it is where governance and management meet. One is responsible for motivating and managing the staff and the other for motivating and managing the board. The relationship should be symbiotic and should focus on how each leader can best leverage resources to fulfill the organization’s vision and mission.
  • Schedule regular conversations to discuss progress on stated goals (as outlined in your strategic plan) and craft the agenda for board meetings.
  • Clarify what the board would like to see included in ED reports and what the ED feels should be included. For a FREE ED Report template click here.
  • Establish communication norms. How does each individual wish to receive messages and key correspondences, what are hours of availability, and what is an acceptable response time?
  • Work together to develop a succession plan at both the board and staff levels.

Serving as a board chair certainly is not an easy job…but then again…nothing worth having ever is.

If you’ve ever considered a Board Retreat or are interested in Upcoming Events, we’d love to hear from you. We hope this content helps as you continue to grow for good.

– Mandy

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