Monday, September 12, 2016

The board chair experience: I wish I'd had...

"In hindsight, what one resource, person or experience would you have like to have had to prepare for your role as board chair?"

This open-ended question from our Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chairs survey ranks high among my personal-favorite questions, both for the general richness of the data it produced and for the learning/performance-related themes that emerged.

We began coding responses early in our data analysis. I continued that coding this weekend, in preparation for this post. As I remembered, four themes emerged in the 472 comments provided by survey respondents. Those themes:

  • Training
  • Mentors
  • Peer networking and support
  • Performance support

Since I cover all of these here,  and two have become semi-regular topics, I need to acknowledge that my biases run the risk of seeing things that may not actually exist. In that spirit, I intend to mostly turn over this post to the voices represented in the comments themselves, adding a sentence or two of response for each. Selecting the most representative comments promises to be a challenge. I predict this will be a long one, but that the length added via the comments will be interesting and valuable to you and other readers.


Here are some of the training-coded comments that caught my eye and that fairly represent themes among that pool of responses:
"I wish I had been able to attend one of our national conferences."

"I wish I had thought to research a workshop or webinar for non-profit board members."

"Leadership and public relations workshops."

"A conference of Board Chairs to attend. Best timing would be either just before assuming the chair, or just after chairing the first meeting as chair."

"Evaluation training to help board assess organization's impact."

"A course on being a non-profit Board Chair before becoming chair then workshops during term as chair."

"Focused training in managing peer group decision making."
"classes designed for how a nonprofit board functions and responsibility of each member."

A couple of observations about the larger "training" comments pool. The biggest surprise for me, frankly, was the number of comments indicating interest in access to resources specifically described as "training" or experiences that clearly was formal learning experience. They ranged from general course/workshop on being a board chair to training on specific topics, including group dynamics, conflict resolution, meeting management, etc.

The second observation is in relationship to the data offered in an earlier question about steps they took to prepare (and the more basic question - DID you prepare - in which 51 percent answered "no"). Adult educator me would like to have the chance to do follow-up interviews and see how they might connect those dots.


Almost as strong as a theme was a desire for access to mentors or mentor-like relationships. Some representative comments from that pool include:

"A mentor would have been nice - but that would have been my initiative to seek one."

"Mentor Board Chair from a high functioning/role model organization"

"A coach or consultant to help me create a strategy or focus for my tenure as chair, to keep me from feeling overwhelmed or pulled in too any directions."

"A President from another Chapter to give me a different perspective." 

"An experienced former Board Chair that can advise me."

"Advice from chair or CEO of a similar but different organization."

"Talking to an ED that has a successful board chair/CEO partnership to get their advice."

"I would have liked to have had a Chairman of the Board's 'Coach.' Access to someone who had a wealth of experience dealing with and guiding leaders of a wide variety of non-profit organizations having boards of differing backgrounds, resources and numbers."

"I would have liked more information/interaction and mentoring from the outgoing chair, and earlier conferences/dialogue with the CEO."

As with the training responses, there was no beating about the bush. Many respondents wanted access to someone who could be a sounding board/guide/resource to help them navigate the occasional tricky board leadership waters. Now, yes, as one of the respondents above said, he/she could go out and find that supportive person if that was needed. But there's also potential value in creating sector- or sub-sector or community-level access to mentoring and coaching support.

Performance support

While training is a universally-understood concept, that is not generally the case for performance support, which I consider to be at least as important as formal learning for effective nonprofit governance (and board leadership). Respondents expressing performance support needs didn't identify them as such, but they exemplify the types of resources that board chairs should have available to them. Some representative comments:

"I'd have liked some national materials prepared for non-profit board chairs, and some aimed at the particular sector (youth arts program) in which I volunteer."

"books or articles on chair leadership"

"Website or specific internet resource specifically for nonprofit board chairs"

"Board chair for Dummies or an internet equivalent"

"Specific examples of board committees, and how they contribute to the organization."

"I wished there would have been more information online, free resources that did have quality information included"

"A specific non profit Board chair handbook of best practices."
"A resource on compensation and managing that and the relationship with the ED, because it winds up being such an emotionally fraught process if not handled properly."
"Possibly a job description. I feel I probably perform some tasks that are not typical for a board chair."

"I think a self-assessment tool to help me evaluate my strengths and opportunities for learning as a board chair would have been very useful."

"I would like a local resource for board governance/serving as a chair."

This is another area where I would have liked a chance to interview respondents for more detail and behind their answers - again, within the context of the previous question about helpful resources (and action not taken). Some version of pretty much all of these needs exist somewhere, usually many forms. The question for me continues to be this: did they access those resources and not find them helpful (and, if that's the case, what was missing?) or did they not look for them in the first place? No judgment implied here. Just wondering - especially if what they found was not what they needed, since I'm one who provides different pieces of that performance support puzzle.

Peer networking

The fourth theme was not as strong as the others, and I won't have many different examples. But the need was evident in the number of comments offered. Here are a few, to give you a general idea of how they expressed it:

"I chair a local food pantry board. It would be helpful to learn from other food pantry board presidents."

"I would have liked to have the wisdom and experience of other board chairs/non-profit organization heads. from my organization and definitely from others. Those different perspectives would have been welcome."

"A consultation with experienced board chairs in a webinar or workshop setting."

"Would love to have met with board chairs from neighboring organizations."

Since an original purpose of this site - and the reason behind the now unfortunate name - was networking and support of our local nonprofit boards, I like to think I can envision what these commenters were needing. I like to think there already examples in the wild, maybe some open or potentially open to board chairs, wherever they may be in the sector. I've even built some networking (and performance support) opportunities into my new board chairs course on

But I also know that these types of support networks require some support of their own. I also know that many believe that quality interaction can only take place when all parties are in the same room. Sector capacity builders need to come to grips with the former and commit to that support. Future board chairs need to stretch their imaginations a bit and be open to seeing what can happen when technology connects them to an even broader network of peers with different perspectives, challenges and solutions.

Questions still remain for me regarding the apparent disconnect between the very real needs expressed in 15 pages of comments here and the responses provided in the two questions mentioned earlier (both the 51 percent who say they took no specific action to prepare for the role and all those "N/As" on the options presented in the "helpful resources" question). The opportunity for gathering insights from this particular group has long passed.

If I were to pick a follow-up focus, it would be expansion of this larger preparation question. I'm not unfamiliar with that line of work. In fact, reporting on a local board learning needs survey was the first content focal point of this blog. What this national study reinforced for me was that a survey provides one useful set of data. But we also need deeper insights that enhance our ability to understand what they really need, the barriers they experience, and the potential vehicles for bridging the gap between the two. That requires a qualitative research element.

I have at least one more post in this series, ready for publication next week. In the meantime, as always, I appreciate any insights you might have to help expand thinking (and generate some conversation) about what is shared here today.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM.

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