Nonprofit boards

Board Chair: More than a title!

“How’s that new board position going?” I asked a young colleague. We hadn’t spoken for several months. When we last met, she was excitedly looking forward to her first real board position.

“I’m the only one who will speak up; everybody else seems willing to rubber stamp things,” she said, obviously discouraged.

Tell me more...

“The board chair has been there forever,” she explained. “Whatever he wants will go through. I feel like I'm wasting my time.”

That is a waste...and on so many levels. I can’t help but wonder if this will end a promising volunteer resource.

Granted, the board chair is responsible for leading the board. But leading is not the same as line management, especially when you’re leading a group of volunteers. Perhaps nowhere is that more important than on a nonprofit's Board of Directors.

Strong leadership includes encouraging the involvement of and active engagement by all board members. A good leader wants members who can and will contribute. After all, that’s what makes boards work!

A good leader will recruit the most competent and committed members available, and then get out of the way. A strong leader will have enough self-confidence to want to help all board members continue to grow and develop their capabilities. And thus, to help them carry out their commitment to the organization.

Strong leadership is less about shutting down opposition and more about building up support.

Like the relationship with the Executive Director, a board chair’s relationship with the board requires open and honest communication, as well as flexibility and trust. It’s not an easy role. And it’s certainly not always the most expeditious route to decisions. 

But there are many benefits to making the commitment to being a strong board leader. For starters, it makes recruiting and retention of qualified board members a lot easier. Which increases the likelihood you’ll be managing a more responsive and responsible board process. Not to mention making a greater impact on the organization.

You’ll likely also find the experience will help you better manage many other kinds of situations as well!

So, What Did You Expect?

When I graduated from being a member of the parish school board to my first position on a local non-profit’s board of directors, it was an eye-opening elevation. 

As a long-time volunteer for the organization, I saw the invitation as an honor ... a recognition of the time I had contributed.

I was also flattered when told my insights and experience would be a valuable addition to the marketing committee ... in obvious recognition of my talent.

When, a few weeks into my term, the board president asked for an appointment, I readily agreed. Imagine my surprise when she asked for a multi-year, multi-thousand commitment of my treasure as well.

The old time, talent or treasure commitment I thought I made fell far short of the time, talent AND treasure expected.

I served a single term on that board, never fully recovering from the initial dissonance. Which means I also never really committed in any of those three critical areas as fully as I might have.

In the years since I’ve grown to appreciate that, with a greater understanding and acceptance of what was expected, I might have also had a greater impact in the position.

Every time an executive director laments his or her relationship with the board – especially in terms of failure to meet expected levels of performance – I question how clearly they see the relationship between recruiting and results.

But that may be a topic for another day. Stay tuned.

Board Participation Reflects You—Good and Bad

If you've ever served on a nonprofit board, you've surely encountered an underperformer or two.

The board member who promises a lot, but rarely comes through. The one who misses meetings and calls—or dashes in consistently late. The type who seem perfectly content with others shouldering any heavy lifting.

Yes, these people like the title more than the job. And it shows. 

But here's the thing. Board participation and volunteer work doesn't happen in a vacuum.

I can't tell you the number of times I've been a part of conversations where someone's board participation becomes part of a hiring decision. I'm astounded at how many people don't consider this.

If you're considering volunteering, be clear about what time you have available and are willing to spend. Find out what the expectations are upfront (trust me, better to know now). And then do what you say you are going to do. It's simple, but more rare than you might think.

And if a life or work crisis happens in the middle of your volunteer commitment, be honest about what's happening so others can pick up the slack without problems happening. Whatever you do, don't go awol. 

And remember, your positive efforts reflect on you, too. Many friends and colleagues alike have had great experiences on nonprofit boards and also found many great opportunities as a result.