By Jeff Jowdy
Over the past two years, we have been doing a lot of listening. Listening about what I strongly feel — or rather, what I know — is the most important role for a nonprofit organization: the board chair.
As we have had discussions with leaders across the nation and across the world, it has become clear to me that there is a leadership crisis and it involves board chairs.
There are many board chairs who are stars. Most who accept this vital role have noble intent and mean to do well. But what we are hearing — from leaders who have been part of organizations large and small — is that too often, board chairs come in ill-prepared and without an understanding of the gravity of their role.
“Voices of Nonprofit Chairs,” a 2016 survey of 635 nonprofit board chairs primarily from across the U.S., presents the findings from a research study conducted by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management.
They found that half of the board chairs surveyed said that they did nothing specific to prepare for their role.
The board’s number one role is to hire and, when needed, fire the CEO. The person who is most attuned to the CEO’s performance is the board chair. In good times, the board chair is the CEO’s mission partner and strongest advocate.
At the same time, the board chair must realize that they have a fiduciary role and that the CEO, no matter how close the relationship, is their employee. The board chair serves in a public trust.
The success of any CEO is deeply entwined with the quality of the board chair and the relationship between the two. We have all seen board chairs perform remarkably well and remarkably poorly. More than once, I have been surprised by poor performance from a board chair who seemed to bring all the necessary experience and knowledge into that role.
Early in my career, I was fortunate to be a young CEO and to be mentored by an exceptional board chair who understood strategy and the board’s strategic role. And he saw ensuring my continued development as a leader as one of his priorities. At the same time, while we became very close friends, he never lost sight of his primary fiduciary role, which included the supervision and evaluation of the CEO. He gave me candid and very direct feedback that challenged me and made me better. In public, he was my biggest fan.
We are conducting research on the attributes and roles of nonprofit board chairs — from higher education, to independent schools, to YMCAs, to social services and health care, and beyond.
We’re asking for insight on the most important attributes of successful board chairs, as well as traits that may be detrimental to board chair leadership.
More than 800 nonprofit staff and volunteer leaders have participated in this survey. If you are not one of them, we need and would value your insight. Our goal is to top 1,000 in the next two weeks.
Please use this link, and take 10 minutes to provide your insight and experience to this important research project. I am grateful to you for being a reader and would value and appreciate your participation. And as appropriate, I would appreciate you sharing this link through email and social media. Thank you!
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