Developing Great Board Chairs

The chair of a nonprofit board has significant power to shape the organization, but all too often, that chair is not prepared to lead. More often than we’d like to admit, the previous board chair needed to step down unexpectedly and someone without training reluctantly takes the position. In a recent study, over half the respondents reported they did nothing to prepare for their role as a board chair. The new board chair is frustrated, because they aren’t sure what to do. The executive director is frustrated, because they have an ineffective board chair. The rest of the board members start pulling back and don’t want to attend meetings. None of this helps the organization grow.

It’s unfortunate, since a great board chair has a real opportunity to make a positive difference for the organization. They can inspire their fellow board members to do their best and support the executive director tremendously. Board chairs need to have a wide range of skills, especially in working with others. They also need to have the time to focus on the board and the organization. The process to choose the next board chair should be deliberate, but it is too often made in a time of panic as the previous chair leaves.

How can this be avoided? First, there needs to be a continual process of asking board members to step up into leadership roles. As with succession planning for executive directors, nonprofits shouldn’t wait until there is a crisis to find the next leader. Make it an expectation of board membership that everyone will take on some sort of leadership role. Provide training to the board regularly on governance and leadership. Give board members additional responsibilities over time so they can develop their skills, and encourage them to step up.

Second, the chair-elect should be chosen a year in advance so that the current board chair can mentor them. Instead of having a vice chair position, use the term chair-elect, so that it is clear that that person will be stepping up. Avoid having someone as the vice chair who says they won’t be chair, as that doesn’t help the organization over the long-term.

Third, the board chair and chair-elect should be continually improving their skills and those of the full board. Reading books, listening to podcasts and attending trainings are all important for board members to do. There are many best practices available. You don’t have to figure it out on your own, but you do have to invest the time in learning.

Finally, board chair mentoring is an effective and efficient way to increase your skills. I offer a six month program for board chairs to develop their skills. The mentoring program includes an organizational assessment, and covers topics including agenda development, board member recruitment, running effective meetings, advancing diversity of the organization, creating a strong chair-ED relationship, and engaging all board members in fundraising. Plus you get the opportunity to ask questions and talk through challenging issues.

Please contact me at to schedule a free initial session to assess your needs and talk about how mentoring can benefit you and your organization.

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