The right people at the right time – this is a fundamental premise of the Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model. We apply this to the board, the CEO/ED, and the relationship between the two. The goal: balanced partnership. The reality: it takes consistent attention and purposeful action.
Central to this relationship is the board chair. We know, of course, that not every nonprofit has staff. In fact, most nonprofits in Alaska have no staff. However, this intensifies rather than minimizes the important role of the board chair.
And yet, staff or not, our board chairs are often picked by default – we often joke that the person who gets up to go to the bathroom during the selection will become the chair. This is no way to set up a team for success. And yet…
So, if we were doing it on purpose, what are we looking for in a successful board chair? There are many characteristics, but one in particular stands out and that’s the ability to facilitate the cultural dynamics of the group. This term refers to the way we bring our organizational values and behavioral norms into any space where mission is occurring, and then how that intersects with everyone’s personal values and behavior on the team. We see our cultural values play out in many ways, including how the team makes decisions, the way we communicate, and the way we deal with conflict. The latest national study on board governance, Daring to Lead, notes:
“Chair selection should emphasize skills in managing and facilitating group dynamics. Given the importance of the chair’s role in creating and sustaining a strong board culture, and the impact that board culture has on overall organizational performance, boards are wise to emphasize skills related to consensus building and conflict resolution when selecting a chair. Taking opportunities to observe and cultivate this skill set among committee chairs and other board leadership positions may help ensure that future candidates for the chair position are well prepared to lead. It also helps ensure the board is not forced to appoint a chair who does not have these essential skills.”
Establishing the role of the chair as a facilitator of cultural dynamics is critical, but what else does the position entail? A job description should also include the chair’s main responsibilities of keeping the board focused on what matters the most for the organization. How the chair stewards the mission is a bit more delicate, and while each person will do it with their own nuance, and hopefully in context with the organizational culture, generally it is appropriate to expect the following minimum responsibilities:
Again, the Daring to Lead study also highlights the importance of the board chair in setting a positive culture for the organization. “When it comes to board culture, the importance of the board chair’s leadership cannot be overstated. Daring to Lead data shows a clear link between the ability of the board to work as a collaborative team and the board chair’s ability to:
The study goes on to note that “when board chairs are strong facilitators of board culture, the board is more likely to operate as a collaborative team working toward a common goal.”
While this list of roles and responsibilities is not complete, and could deepen depending on the size, complexity, and staffing of the organization, it clearly shows that this is not a role that should be offered by the board to one of its members without clear intention. Additionally, the responsibility of the rest of the board and the CEO to create an environment for the collaborative team to thrive should be a top priority for us all.
Certainly, support is a piece of a flourishing environment. In this context, support includes creating and holding safe space for the board chair to ask questions, to find their peers, and to explore their challenges. I have often thought that board chairs, if not whole boards of similar missions, should regularly meet with each other. Not because we all need more meetings, but because so much can be learned from each other that is different from what staff would share or prioritize. Imagine a world where board members simply met more often to talk about being better board members or tackling bigger questions to address the issues we face in our communities. It is this vision that propels us at Foraker to offer our statewide educational programs for board and staff, that prompts us to gather board chairs and ask them specifically what support they need and then endeavor to provide it, and that invites us to create ways for more board chairs to seek support that works best for them. It is also what makes us aware that we must do more to help board chairs reach their full potential in stewarding their missions.
At Foraker, we have tried a few times over the years to develop specific support for board chairs – like brown bag lunches and consultations. While we always knew that a need existed, we didn’t fully address it until we convened the most recent cohort of our Executive Leadership Initiative. ELI is designed for CEOs/EDs who are in their first three years of leadership. Our purpose is to help them succeed so that, in turn, we can hold on to our nonprofit leaders. When we started this program, boards participated but were not an integral part of the process. However, with the current ELI cohort, board chairs were purposely engaged and the results were immediate. This remarkable group of board chairs showed up, rolled up their sleeves, and asked for support – lots of support. Hooray! Our “take away:” we have to do more to support board chairs who either by accident or on purpose have assumed enormous roles in mission success. If we don’t each do our part in this work, our board leaders will be unsupported and unguided and could do harm – to themselves through burnout, to the board as a team, to the CEO, and to the mission. There is a role for each of us in this supportive ecosystem.
While we agree with the Daring to Lead conclusions that CEOs/EDs and boards should show great appreciation for their chairs, celebrating is not enough. We need to take more concrete steps. That means:
Ultimately, the board has one voice and everyone needs to know their roles and responsibilities for exercising that voice as a steward of your mission. But the chair, desired or not, is often the voice of that one voice, and they need support. This is a team effort that on good days will be one of the most rewarding things each of us does, and on the hard days will likely be the thing that matters most to mission.
And, regardless of who has the role, it is unrealistic to think that the person will magically wake up the day after the appointment and know exactly how to do the work in exactly the right cultural context. Each and every board chair needs support. How will you give it, or get it? And what do you need from us?