The Board Chair is the leader of the Nonprofit Board of Directors.
In a Nonprofit Board Forum discussion on LinkedIn, the above statement was more of a question than a description of best practice in governance. The discussion reflected the ambivalence in the nonprofit sector on the role of the board chair beyond being a facilitator of meetings. Many of the participants recognized that if you have a weak board chair and a strong chief executive you may create a rubber stamp board. On the other hand, a strong board chair might negatively affect the collective nature of the board where all members are leaders.
In the middle of the discussion Nathan Garber had this to say:
For boards to be effective, someone must be charged with the responsibility for ensuring that the board is able to do whatever work is necessary for the organization to fulfill its mission and achieve its vision. Most organizations expect this person to be the chair of the board but this is never made clear in the chair’s job description, policies or bylaws. As a result, many board chairs think their job is simply to chair meetings. They don’t know that good governance requires good leadership just as the CEO must provide good leadership for the organization’s programs and services to be effective. Too often, it falls to the CEO to provide leadership to the board, a role that inevitably leads to board members feeling accountable to the CEO and ultimately to deeper problems of accountability and authority.
…I believe that the nonprofit board chair is THE most important person in a nonprofit organization. Let me say this again… I believe that the nonprofit board chair is THE most important person in a nonprofit organization. Why? The Chair is responsible for keeping the board members together, making sure the board is results-focused….
Comments by Nathan and Mike help us move from a question: Is the board chair the leader of the board? to a statement: The board chair is the leader of the board!
- as the senior volunteer leader of the organization
- is responsible for leading the board in the responsibilities that are critical to good governance
- empowers the board to move forward and build organizational capacity
- cultivates a working partnership with the chief executive
We, as governance and organizational development practitioners, have the opportunity to significantly improve boards of directors by clarifying and enabling the board chair as the leader of the Board. According to Alice Korngold, a Fast Company blogger, building a better board is all about the board chair.
Let’s move from ambivalence to confidence. Let’s commit to putting the following governance partnership premises into action:
- Every nonprofit organization has two key leaders
- The board chair is a volunteer and is the elected leader of the board of directors
- The chief executive is employed by the board of directors to be the leader of the organization
- The board chair and the chief executive must work in partnership to lead the entire organization