Role of the Board Chair

The Role of the Nonprofit Board Chair

The nonprofit board chair’s role is one of the most important, least well-defined, and least understood leadership positions. 

Many nonprofit by-laws refer to the chair’s responsibility to manage board meetings, and, generally, act as an officer of the corporation.  Usually, a board chair’s unwritten or implied responsibilities are far greater – sometimes for the good of the nonprofit, and sometimes not.

Too many nonprofits and their boards somehow believe that the title puts the board chair “in charge” of the organization’s governance, directing the work of the board and its committees and acting as the CEO’s “boss.”   On the other hand, some nonprofits see the chair’s role as ceremonial and defer to the CEO for agenda development and leadership.  Both views are seriously flawed in their imbalance.  Being a successful board chair is a constant balancing act.

If the relationship between the nonprofit board and the CEO is one of partnership, the role of the board chair is to facilitate that partnership by modeling partnership behaviors.  If board members are the nonprofit’s ambassadors, the board chair is usually the chief ambassador, using their influence with – not power over – others inside and outside the organization to assure the organization=s mission and strategic plan are achieved.

Perspective on the board chair’s role gives valuable insight over what type of skills and talents are required of the person who is asked to assume this role.  Being able to run a board meeting is a good start.  A good board chair:

  • assures that all board members have the opportunity for meaningful participation;
  • works with the CEO and committees to develop agendas;
  • keeps the board “on task” and focused on agenda items;
  • assures that board meetings start and end on time (as much as possible);
  • seeks board consensus whenever possible;
  • refrains from participation in debates, allowing others to speak first and most; and
  • helps focus board and organizational effort on the future, less on the past or today.

The behaviors the chair models during board meetings are, generally, the same behaviors they should use outside the board room.  Regardless of conflicts or disagreements in the board room, the nonprofit needs to “speak with one voice” in the community to avoid confusion and build the confidence of stakeholders and the public. If the board agrees that the chair is the board’s spokesperson, the chair should represent the views and positions of the organization rather than their personal opinions.  The chair should be comfortable – not just willing – to act as an agent representing a consensus of leaders.

Finding a board chair with the qualities of partnership, agency, and shared leadership should be the goal of every nonprofit organization.  The only more important goal is developing a culture where such individuals rise to leadership in the nonprofit organization.