If we seriously recruited, nurtured and prepared nonprofit board leaders for the significant responsibilities that come with the job, what core capacities would we emphasize?
Earlier this summer, I shared what I consider to be the essential dispositions of nonprofit governance. As I've continued reflecting on the pivotal role that the chairperson has in shaping everything the board does, and begun developing a set of supports for that leadership responsibility, I've come up with a list of "essential capacities" for the position.
Ability and willingness to lead
A common inside joke in the sector is the board chair who was elected because he/she was absent when voting took place. While there actually may be a few cases where that literally is true, the scenario of a reluctant board member being coerced into serving because no one else wants the job is not such a stretch. How many of us who were coerced into serving grab the gavel and say, "Yes! Let's do this!"
Chairs who are willing and able to lead understand what governance means and focus board attention on those responsibilities. They don't allow the group to be sidetracked by micromanagement and distractions that have little to nothing to do with the board's real work. They embrace the significant leadership role and all that comes with it. They do not delegate board leadership to the executive director - even/especially the hard parts.
They also have the tools needed to facilitate productive work and reduce the risk of conflict. They have the skills required to navigate the inevitable disagreements and to leading the board as a whole to a stronger place in the end.
Ability to communicate a compelling vision of the future
Already passionate about the organization's work and mission, effective board chairs welcome the myriad opportunities to share that vision of the future with a broad range of audiences. Internally, that translates into inspiring the board to reach for its very best in all aspects of governance. Externally, it involves sharing stories about lives changed and the potential of even greater impact with each new audience's support. They reach out, creating new connections for the organization and strengthening existing relationships. They model effective community leadership for their board peers.
Design and direction of effective board agendas
Effective board chairs define the agenda. Literally. They work with the ED to identify the focus and tasks for each meeting agenda (translation: do not delegate this critical task to the ED). They understand that meeting time is best spent asking mission-driven questions, not passively listening to reports of management-level tasks. They engage all members in discussions, creating an expectation of active participation and joint responsibility for meeting outcomes.
Modeling and ensuring accountability
Effective board chairs are prepared to hold their fellow board members - and themselves - accountable for results. They set goals, evaluate, and ensure reporting of results to external stakeholder groups (including, but not limited to, donors, regulating bodies, and the larger community). They set the bar high and don't make excuses when the board occasionally falls short. They encourage everyone on the board to reach for excellence in service and support them in their efforts to do so.
Commitment to board development
Effective board chairs understand that an investment in board development is an investment in the group's capacity to govern. They understand that the learning process begins with a multi-layered board orientation but continues across a member's service. They know that members have at least two major categories of learning need: about board service and about the organization and its mission area. They commit to scheduling regular formal board development events and embedding informal learning opportunities into meetings and other board activities. They include board development goals into board expectations and ensure that they are not only met but are respected as essential to governance.
Yes, I know that this is a lot to ask of a volunteer. But I also know that boards require a high level of commitment from their leaders, and high expectations to which they can be expected to stretch. They need, not reluctant placeholders, but individuals courageous enough to embrace the breadth of leadership challenge that comes with the job. The leaders who serve deserve the chance to make an impact - the reason they chose to serve in the first place.
With it, our boards have the potential to meet the full range of governance responsibilities - and impact the organizations' forward mission motion. Without it, they are doomed to wallow and risk being obstacles to that effort.
What kind of leader does your board want? How are you preparing and supporting that individual for the success that you all need?