You can go to school and earn an advanced degree in executive leadership, but no one is formally trained to be a board chair. Nonprofit board chairs are often successful professionals accustomed to playing an active role in driving change, making bold moves, and giving orders in their own organizations – in short, traits that can make for a disastrous board chair.
What, then, are the traits of a great board chair? Here’s what we’ve learned from a review of recent research, as well Fairmount Ventures’ experience over many years of working with hundreds of boards.
- Don’t try to have all the answers. Rather than asking themselves, “What is the best solution to a problem?” great board chairs ask, “What is the best way to organize a discussion about the problem?” Then, they plan the board’s agenda to allow for other members’ input, assure that the board has needed context, and facilitate the discussion.
- Focus on process, not the particulars. Perhaps counter-intuitively, there is an advantage to board chairs not having expertise in the nonprofit’s field of work. As someone outside the field, they can ask big picture questions from a fresh perspective.
- Provide opportunities for other people to shine. Great board chairs create conditions that bring out the best in others by facilitating discussions with multiple perspectives. They frame the issue but remain impartial throughout the conversation. They speak last, if at all, in voicing their opinion.
- Keep the entire board engaged. Great board chairs invest time between board meetings to get to know each board member, what’s important to them, and how they can contribute. Before meetings, the board chair helps craft the agenda to assure that the board discussions will be strategic and meaningful. During meetings, the chair makes sure that everyone has equal air time, and that votes are only called after an issue has been sufficiently explored.
Great board chairs foster teamwork: full participation is critical to success.
- Pace board discussions to allow for thoughtful deliberation and decisions. Management is in the trenches of the work, making day-to-day as well as longer-term decisions. The Board needs to consider key issues in the context of mission and strategy. Great board chairs assure that the board correctly frames issues, and give them the attention they require.
- Show up. Great board chairs make themselves available as a sounding board and advisor to the executive, helping to put concerns of the day in context. They have standing meetings with the executive to help assure that the organization stays on its strategic course and anticipates issues, and to problem solve together.
- Don’t be the boss. While the board chair works closely with the executive, great board chairs remember that the board is the collective “boss” of the executive, not just them. It is the chair’s job to assure that the entire board weighs in on the goals, strategies, and resources available to the executive.
Serving on a nonprofit board, much less being a board chair, can be an immensely satisfying experience. People are able to advance causes about which they feel passionate, learn about new worlds, develop skills, cultivate social and professional relationships, etc. Doing a great job, however, requires awareness and attention to the fact that serving and leading a board is not the same as serving or leading one’s own workplace or family.
What’s your experience with what makes a great board chair?
We’d love to hear your thoughts so we can pass them on to others. You can reach me at