nonprofit management

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!

Unleash the Potential

I recently had the opportunity witness the graduation and swearing in of nearly 100 new Veterans Mentors at the 3rd Annual Justice for Vets National Boot Camp. 

Justice for Vets is an organization that was founded in 2010 and is dedicated to creating a nationwide network of Veterans Treatment Courts. There are currently more than 220 Veterans Treatment Courts in the country with hundreds more in the planning stages. 

One of the keys to the success of Veterans Treatment Courts is their ability to link troubled veterans with volunteer veteran mentors. The graduation ceremony not only capped two full days of education and training for the new mentors, but it also celebrated their commitment in the closing session of the annual national conference attended by more than 4,500 court and social professionals already involved in planning or running a Veterans Treatment Court or other specialized treatment court.

How does an organization build a cadre of volunteers who will advocate and work so tirelessly to implement its mission?

In a powerful ceremony that took less than an hour, this organization:

  • reinforced the need for and value of the contributions these volunteers were going to provide
  • recognized how uniquely qualified these particular individuals were to complete the task at hand, both because of their prior military service and their successful transition to civilian life 
  • provided the training and materials needed to help the volunteer mentors understand their assignment more fully and be able to complete it more effectively
  • created a forum for public acknowledgment and appreciation of the mentors' willingness to give of their time, energy and skills in the service of other veterans
  • and as a part of that forum, also pledged broader, continued support as the volunteers returned to their individual communities to put into practice what they had just learned. 

Powerful stuff. Talk about reinforcing and reinvigorating a commitment. And becoming a volunteer mentor is no minor commitment!

(Full disclosure: Justice for Vets is also a professional services division of the National Association for Drug Court Professionals, an organization in which my wife has been involved since its inception 20-some years ago. I have a bias toward treatment courts as well as a bias toward helping veterans, so my favorable reaction to this event may come as no surprise.) 

But, that notwithstanding…

Does it make your wonder if your volunteers are as committed to you? Or, if they could be?

Ask yourself:

How well does our organization accomplish the above five points?