Best Practices for Effective Board Leadership

Every nonprofit organization (as well as public agency) is looking for the perfect board chairperson who can excel at every aspect of leading the organization to the next level.

It’s true that the board chair is a critical element to a successful organization. Selecting a board chair must be a careful and strategically well-planned process. You don’t select a board chair based on who raises their hand first and cries “pick me.”

Serving as the chair of a board is not a role for the undecided or inexperienced. To do the job right demands at times exceptional and supernatural qualities, endless energy, and undivided attention and commitment. Accepting the responsibility of leading a nonprofit board, not just serving as a figurehead, assumes that the chair possesses the leadership competencies through demonstrated (professional or volunteer) experience to do an effective job and produce results, namely leading a team, running a business, or handling the allocation of resources.

From our experience, while some skills are transferable from one organization to another, the work of most boards of directors must be tailored and shaped based on the current life-cycle phase of the organization. During the start-up phase there is a need for more entrepreneurial leadership; during the growth and maturing stages there is a great need for strong management, infrastructure, and systems thinking.

Every organization is different and every board chair needs to approach their role in light of the values and mission of the organization. Keeping this in mind, here are our 10 tips for success as a board chair:

  1. Establish a strong partnership with the Executive Director, offering the necessary support, coaching, and connection to resources that will make them excel. Make sure you are clear on your role in their success.
  2. Serve as the mouthpiece of the organization. The chairperson and the executive director should play key roles in working together and representing the organization at public events, with the media, and when testifying in front of legislative bodies.
  3. Keep everyone on task — both at the meetings and when trying to accomplish a job for the organization. When a board member makes a commitment at a board meeting, have the secretary underline the commitment in red ink. The chair can go over these commitments at the next meeting to make sure they’re accomplished.
  4. Include everyone in the decision-making process. You can lose credibility very quickly by excluding people who are difficult to deal with, isolating people who share dissenting opinions, or not calling on people because they’re quiet or shy. It’s very important for the chair to involve the whole group when discussing issues and making decisions.
  5. Know what each member’s strengths are, and the best way to do this is to get to know each of the board members individually. So, try to go out to lunch at least once per year with each board member and really take the time to get to know them.
  6. Expect criticism but don’t take it personally. This is an important point for any board chair to recognize. You’re not in a popularity contest — it’s better to be respected than liked. Conflict and criticism are part of the turf.
  7. Be prepared for every board meeting and realize that it’s show time. Board meetings are critical to any organization’s success and they must be well planned. Make sure you meet with the executive director to write and prepare the agenda. Don’t avoid touchy issues.
  8. Ask people directly in front of other board members to volunteer for tasks and roles. It’s more difficult for people to say “No” publicly than privately. Don’t be afraid to exert this kind of leadership at the meetings.
  9. Select new recruits to your board who are excited about your mission and role in the community. They should feel honored, not obligated, to serve on your board.
  10. In reality, the board chair has no real power, just influence. In a democratically run board, the board chair should facilitate and involve discussion to try to reach decisions. The real power comes not in individually exercising the power, but in inspiring the group to exercise its collective power.