Just for Board Chairs
If you are reading this because you were just elected board chair of a nonprofit, first: Congratulations for the recognition by your peers, and thanks for your service to the community. Next, you may be thinking, ‘Whoa, now what?’
Don’t worry, you’ve got this. If you love the mission of the nonprofit and are willing to put in the time to build a strong, trusting relationship with the executive director, as well as your colleagues on the board, you’ll be a rockstar board chair. But just in case you’d like to remind yourself about HOW to be that rockstar board chair, you may want to read Joan Garry’s post sharing a “Five-star board chair checklist.” Yes, you should familiarize yourself with the roles a board chair is expected to play, such as managing/facilitating meetings and overall good governance (here and here). But you’ll also benefit your organization and yourself by spending time thinking about why a board chair is even needed and how that relates to the importance of having a great relationship with the executive director.
Consider how hard it is for an executive director to hold the full board accountable, when the executive director is simultaneously accountable to the board. It’s more natural for the board chair to hold the rest of the board’s feet to the flames. And in order for that to happen, the executive director has to be able to candidly, honestly, and fearlessly share concerns when it seems that the board is dragging its feet, distracted, or not engaged. Similarly, the board chair has to candidly, honestly, and fearlessly share the board’s concerns relating to the executive director or the organization’s performance. Unless there is a trusting relationship, those important conversations won’t happen productively.
In case it’s not altogether clear, the role of board chair is all about building positive, trusting relationships, because it also falls to the board chair to develop a trusting relationship with each other board member. You can do that by – among other things – making sure the board has time together outside the board room to get to know one another. (See Leading with Intent, “The role of social time,” page 26, and “Invest in a Board’s Culture,” page 51.) You will be respected as a leader when you show respect for your peers by making sure that all board members feel valued and have the opportunity to ask questions and share ideas during meetings.
In sum, it’s the time and effort that board chairs, executive directors, and other board members commit to building relationships between meetings that create the foundation for strong, trusting, and honest relationships all around. These honest relationships are assets that your organization will be very grateful for whenever the board faces difficult decisions – and when everything’s humming along, too!
Should the board chair vote? There is no universally correct answer and no external requirements or limitations. That decision differs from one nonprofit to another since it’s reflective of the organization’s culture – although sometimes the answer is set forth in the nonprofit’s bylaws. In some nonprofits, the board chair only votes to break a tie, which reinforces that the board chair is a consensus-builder facilitating the meeting and decision-making process. At other nonprofits, the board chair – as a duly elected or appointed board member – participates fully in the decision-making process and votes on all motions (unless s/he abstains due to a conflict of interest, such as may happen if the vote is to approve the CEO’s compensation).
Just finding time to meet with the executive director/board chair around and among your already busy calendar commitments can create unnecessary (but understandable) stress that can sabotage the relationship. Committing to a regular time to meet may take that stress off the table. Perhaps share with each other in advance the issues you want to explore together so that you can each do some preliminary thinking on your own.
Crafting the board meeting agenda together is an activity that executive directors and board chairs find gets smoother with time. Consider checking in after meetings to evaluate what worked well and what could use a little improvement. Have you considered using a consent agenda? Interested in more meeting tips? Here are 10 tips for effective meetings.