Does Your Non-Profit Board Have The Right Chair? | Nonprofit Insights |

Does Your Non-Profit Board Have The Right Chair?

Throughout my career I have had both pleasure and weighty responsibility volunteering for not-for-profit and charity boards. I have served as a professional staff on the other side of the table and respect that being a Board member is no easy task.

Recent reports of charities getting into difficult situations underscores the need to examine current volunteer selection processes, particularly the Board Chair election.

Regardless of your organization’s size, the Board of Directors can be more effective in setting strategic direction, mitigating risks, guiding executive leadership, mustering resources and providing responsible governance if they have the proper leadership. Organizations with a robust, well executed selection and ‘on-boarding’ process can help elect the right Chair.

Chair selection requires active board engagement

Often a Nominations Committee is responsible for vetting candidates for the Board. The committee, with the input of the Board, should achieve consensus on the leadership qualities and attributes they need of the incoming Chair. Liken to an employee recruitment process, the Chair search – internal or external to the existing Board – should include a position profile, defined competencies and a well articulated leadership mandate defined by the full Board of Directors. Ensuring there is a high degree of formality in the process the Board can be more effective in their selection.

Leadership is like seasons, it changes with time as do conditions. Different stages in an organization’s development requires different styles and competencies in Board members. Leadership exercised today may not be the same type of leadership needed for tomorrow. Each member of the Board should be fully engaged in determining the leadership needed for the Board and the competencies of the candidate.

Appointing a Chair who is properly vetted and prepared for the role can ensure your organization does not veer off course or stagnate. Your board should take precautionary steps well in advance of ratifying a candidate to avoid such pitfalls. I believe the decision-making process should be as rigorous as the selection of your Executive Director. By doing so the organization and its Board of Directors can achieve greater success.

Execute relevant, learner-centered ‘on-boarding’

Prior to the ratification of your Chair the management team and the Nominations Committee should be preparing an orientation or “on-boarding” program.  Investing time in the early weeks of the Chair’s tenure executing an on-boarding program will benefit the current and future Board. A Past Chair recently shared with me that she wished she knew more about the role prior to the appointment even though she was a member of the Board for a number of years. She recognized her Board needed a new way of thinking and depth of knowledge in their leader.

Chair orientation programs can serve as refresher courses in policy, structure, roles, by-laws and mission services. Other topics to include range from governance best practices, Robert’s Rules of Order and the review of current board member profiles, skills and experience. Chair conversations with the Executive Director and management team about the roles and responsibilities of governance volunteers and staff are also essential to the on-boarding process.

Including external training through the Institute of Corporate Directors or taking a not-for-profit leadership course available at select universities can prove to be of benefit to Board members. Imagine Canada is also a great resource.

Balanced leadership

The working relationship between Board Chair and Executive Director should be viewed as a partnership. The two leaders need to be mindful of the duality of their roles – recognizing the Chair is the Board appointed supervisor of the Executive Director, and in turn, the paid staff is often the person responsible for Board orientation and support. Creating an effective partnership should be a strong consideration in the Chair selection and not overlooked in the decision-making process.

A long-standing rule of thumb for private sector boards and becoming standard practice for not-for-profits and charities is the Noses In, Fingers Out or ‘NIFO’ rule. While I embrace the concept I also recognize how difficult it can be to achieve the balance as the nonprofit world has gotten more complicated. Communication and accountability amongst the Chair, Board and management are more important than ever.

NIFO simply means that Board members should have their noses in the operations. They should know what’s going on to inform the decisions they will make. They should understand risks, trends, issues, and successes achieved. Fingers out means that Board members should not disempower the management team from running the business. Keep fingers out.

Along with proper selection and orientation, your Board Chair needs the leadership skills and aptitude to ensure the rule of thumb is respected while balancing Board member and management engagement and responsibilities.

Sounds simple, but best not left to chance. Investing the time and resources in electing the Chair can ensure greater success for the organization and ultimately achieve greater social impact over time.

If after reading this article you decided that it was helpful, share it with your network and/or reply with a comment below. Thank you!

Revised November 28, 2017. 
Originally published on February 5, 2016.

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