I Just Watched the Last One

This blog title sums up the total preparation done by many of the incoming board chairs I’ve dealt with. According to an Alliance for Nonprofit Management research report, about 51% of new not-for-profit board chairs say they did nothing to prepare. Most had not been a Vice Chair, and some had not even chaired a committee.

Is this really what you want for someone who is now responsible for managing the board and co-leading the organization with the CEO or Executive Director? 

Woman watching through binoculars

No wonder most new chairs are shocked by the amount of extra work and responsibility they have on top of regular board duties.

What if the last chair was:

  • Incompetent at chairing meetings or carrying out normal chair tasks between meetings?
  • A power-mad bully who made life hell for both directors and senior staff?
  • Grounded in very out-dated thinking about governance?
  • Determined to apply very corporate processes and thinking even when clearly not appropriate to the mission?
  • Holding biases and prejudices that made DEI and Indigenous reconciliation impossible?
  • Unwilling or unable to help the next chair prepare, such as through shadowing and holding a significant role prior to election as chair?

And let me guess – your budget for governance or board education is zero.

You have probably heard lots of talk about how boards are broken, unfixable, more trouble than value. Do you think maybe, just maybe, the lack of support and readiness of board chairs might be part of the reason? Besides, for all the efforts to identify a better system, no one has found a real alternative to a leadership team separate from staff (although many are proposing ways to make that team less hierarchical, less Euro-centric, more inclusive and other such related enhancements).

The CEO or Executive Director will of course work with a new chair to build a relationship, share critical information, provide guidance and more, but they have their own job to do. And what if the new chair is inheriting issues with CEO performance?

Ways to learn

There are many podcasts about nonprofit governance that any director would benefit from listening to.  See https://blog.garthsonleadership.ca/podcasts-for-charity-leaders-in-canada/ for some; I need to write a second one about international podcasts, and another about blogs. There are books but very few volunteer leaders take time to read books about their volunteering.  Or attend the conferences of umbrella organizations where they could build a peer network as well as learn.

I highly recommend the Board Chairs Academy at Third Sector https://boardchairsacademy.com. It provides high-quality learning done with other board chairs who value education and are usually interested in keeping in touch. However, it is too slow for a new chair who needs to get up to speed for their first board meeting!

Immediate Support

An executive coach focussed on the new chair’s success in that role could make a tremendous difference in not only their performance but also the impact of the whole organization. Some organizations succeed despite their board, but what more could they accomplish with a well-led board?

Yes, I do that kind of coaching, but only a few clients a year, so this isn’t much of a sell. Find an executive coach – not a management, life or any other kind. Formal coaching credentials are a strong asset, but most leadership consultants have had to build a significant amount of informal coaching into their work. Find one who has been the chair of a not-for-profit, and preferably been a CEO or Executive Director too, so they can help the chair see issues from both perspectives.

And find the resources to pay the coach. Invest in the success of the organization. You put paid executive and management time into training summer students and interns; does it make sense to have no budget at the governance level? If the chair happens to be rich, they can donate the cost back, but they are already investing extra time, usually time that is very precious to them. And the coaching may save time your Executive Director can put to other good uses if the chair doesn’t need constant handholding.

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