How exciting …you’ve been selected and voted in as the Board Chair of an organization you love. So, you start thinking about all the changes you want to make, starting with shaking up the programs/services offering and finally getting rid of that lazy accounting assistant that no one can stand. Right? Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
The Board chair has a unique role at a nonprofit, which in a nutshell is to assure the Board does its job! And, the Board is responsible for governance, fiduciary oversight, hiring the Executive Director/President and other “hands-off”, yet critically important duties. (See Board Source for the best overview of Board responsibilities). So, you have to slow down, collaborate and prioritize!
First things first, make sure your Board is functional. You need to lead (sometimes develop or recruit) a Board that is engaged, philanthropic, attending BOD meetings and events, committing to the mission, requiring an annual budget and associated operating plan, and working towards a long-term vision. And, the Board is made up of volunteers, so this may be your biggest leadership challenge ever. There are many good consultants, articles and webinars to help you understand and implement best practices on leading the Board. Use them! My favorite tip – set up a committee structure and iterate until it is working for your organization. And, always have a brief executive session as part of each Board meeting.
Second, you need to establish a good working relationship with the Executive Director. The ED reports to you but things go the best when you work together. Establish a regular communication plan – maybe a weekly call and a monthly sit down. Figure out the Board meeting schedule and how meetings will be run (e.g., who sets the agenda, who moderates, when will the ED report and financials go out, who will take minutes). Most importantly, work together to agree the operational priorities for the year with an associated budget and timeline. Then, use that as your guiderails for your regular meetings. A strong Board Chair/ED partnership sets a great tone for all aspects of the business.
Finally, realize that no two organizations are identical but getting to know some peers at other nonprofits is really helpful. Attend a class or two to learn best practices. Your local community foundation and/or a funder would be a great place to start for introductions and referrals. Being a Board chair is not intuitive, so be ready to learn.
And congrats on what could be your most important role yet – effective Board chair!