At Mission Minded, our support of nonprofits lasts long after the work day is done. For several of us, that means taking on the honor and responsibility of being board chair for a nonprofit or school.
This service is not only fulfilling; it also helps us empathize with our clients and their board members. It makes us more valuable contributors and colleagues.
Being a board chair isn’t a snap, however. You need to orient yourself to your responsibilities and the role if you want to be the best board chair you can be. And you do, don’t you? That’s why we’ve collected these six suggestions on how you can elevate your contributions as board chair:
1. Do Your Homework
As board chair, you’re an organizational ambassador, and that means people will assume you have a deep level of understanding of your organization’s brand and mission.
If you don’t, it’s time to do your homework and learn all you can.
I chair the board of a mental health services agency and I’m constantly delighted by how much people expect me to know about its staff and programs. I need to be ready at all times to talk both at a high level and granularly. That kind of knowledge takes effort, and to be an excellent representative that’s the effort you need to put in.
If you’re just getting started, memorizing your organization’s elevator pitch should be step one. (If you don’t have an elevator pitch yet, Mission Minded’s Minute Message Model can get you moving in the right direction).
2. Field Your Team
Every member on your board brings something valuable — and different — to the table. Find out what their superpower is and make the most of it.
When I first became board chair, the executive director and I began the practice of meeting with each board member every year. For these private meetings, we ask the board member to come prepared to articulate both what their most meaningful contribution was during the previous year and where they wanted to focus their energy in the year to come.
These meetings are a great way to keep board members engaged and accountable. (Side note to development directors: we also ask board members to come ready to name their annual financial commitment, so that can be slotted into the budget).
3. Stay in Your Lane
Board chairs oversee boards, set direction, make policy, and liaise with the executive director. They don’t make decisions about staff, programs, or day-to-day operations — those are duties of the executive director or head of school.
Think of this model as an hourglass with the board chair and executive director at the points of connection between the two halves. You guide the board; the executive director guides the staff. Taking care to respect the executive director’s authority is an important aspect of maintaining fidelity to your own authority.
My colleague Zach is the board chair for a tax-payer funded early childhood education initiative and he recently led a search to find that organization a new CEO. After making the selection and hiring someone, Zach was careful to articulate that any other decisions around staffing, promotions, or individual compensation would be the CEO’s to decide. The board’s role was to establish the goals and budgets and it was the CEO’s role to work within those boundaries.
4. Always an Advocate
You should be your Executive Director or Head of School’s best advocate and most valuable counselor. That means that while you should expect them to want and need your support, you should refrain from telling them how to do their job. Their subject matter expertise is why they’re leading the staff. Make sure you validate that expertise and encourage them in making the most of it.
When things could use improvement, resist the urge to micromanage the leadership team. Instead, help them see the best way to get the support they need to shine. Remember: their success is the organization’s success.
My colleague Romayne was founding chair of an independent school. She fondly remembers nurturing the best assets of each of the three consecutive heads of school with whom she worked.
5. Don’t Be a Stranger
Your organization’s staff needs to know you.
Holiday parties, staff retreats, community celebrations? Yes, to all of that. Show up and get to know as many people as possible by name. The board shouldn’t be an unknown entity and that’s doubly true for the board chair. This is especially important if your board is most known (or only known) for holding the purse strings.
At least twice a year I go out to lunch with the clinical director of the nonprofit for which I’m board chair. No agenda, just a chance to listen and make sure I hear what’s happening at ground level… and to let her know that I’m here to help.
6. Amplify the Good
“Amplify the good” is Mission Minded’s brand promise, but it’s also wisdom we carry with us in our work on nonprofit boards. Celebrating the wins — be those grants received, successful events, a client landing on their feet, or something else — lifts everyone up.
At the end of the day, you’re there to support a hard working leadership team and staff who sometimes need nothing more than for you to say, “Great job.”
Being board chair is an honor, a responsibility and — when you do it whole-heartedly — a pleasure. And, just in case no one’s told you lately: thank you for your board service.