Becoming Board Chair

So, it's your turn: You have been asked to step into the role of board chair. But what will be expected of you? How can you be sure that you can provide the leadership needed? How can you fulfill the expectations outlined in the job description? We explore top traits of board leaders, how to motivate your team, and crafting productive partnerships among your staff.

Top Traits of Board Leaders

Let's begin by identifying the characteristics of an effective board leader. First of all, you must be passionately committed to your chorus. This is a trait that you expect in all board members, but, as the most visible volunteer advocate and supporter of your chorus, it is essential that you have and share this passion. When called on to represent your chorus publicly, an effective board leader has the knowledge and enthusiasm to speak confidently—not necessarily as a superstar orator but as a clear, compelling communicator—about the importance of your chorus and its mission.

Highly effective board chairs share common personal qualities and interpersonal skills. Findings from a study about how board chairs affect their organizations by researchers Yvonne Harrison and Vic Murray (released in the Nonprofit Quarterly [1]) indicate that trustworthiness, intelligence, and good listening skills are the highest rated personal qualities— being dictatorial, critical, and motivated by self-interest are the lowest rated qualities.

Effective board chairs also have the ability to think and lead strategically and understand the organization's operations and programs, as well as its current and future challenges and opportunities. They ensure that the entire board, other key volunteers, and staff take time to focus on the big picture by stepping back from day-to-day operations to engage in strategic planning. They use an annual board retreat to evaluate, reflect, and plan.

Determining how much time the job will take is difficult—and it is usually one of the first things a prospective board chair will ask. The answer to this question depends on the efficiency of your existing board, its culture, and your governance structure and practices. In essence, you must commit the time needed to:

  • Ensure effective meetings
  • Participate in board recruitment and new board member orientation
  • Reach out to board members who are not meeting expectations or not participating during meetings
  • Listen to the comments and concerns of others and respond thoughtfully
  • Be a consensus builder
  • Ensure that tough issues are addressed and conflict is well managed

Because it can take time for a new board chair to get up to speed, many nonprofit boards have instituted a chair-elect position as part of their leadership succession planning. In my own experience as a board chair (I've served both as a top administrator and board chair at different times in my career), my successor was chosen in the second year of my two-year term, which gave him ample time to get ready to assume leadership when his term began.

Crafting Productive Staff Partnerships and Leading Effective Meetings

During my tenure as the administrative staff leader of a nonprofit arts organization, I found that a strong and supportive relationship with my board chair was essential. Sustaining a high functioning, effective organization depended upon my ability to develop a relationship with my board chair that was based on mutual trust and respect. Collaborating effectively requires establishing clear and open communication from the start.

It is the chief administrator's responsibility to keep the board chair informed about what is happening operationally, to point out issues or challenges that might be brewing, and to provide suggestions for policies or procedures that need to be established or strengthened. I met regularly with my board chair over breakfast (his preferred time) to keep him abreast of the inner workings of our organization. We discussed details of any looming administrative [2] issues, evaluated progress being made on our strategic plan and the board work plan, and developed meeting agendas to ensure full board participation and informed decisionmaking. Of course, not every meeting included all of these topics (and during some of our breakfasts we spent more time basking in the glow of a recent artistic or fundraising success!).

Our partnership also included working together to develop a schedule of board meetings for the year and providing suggestions about items to be included in the board's annual work plan. Together we reviewed and edited as necessary the board meeting minutes before they were circulated. Our close communication ensured that we were truly singing from the same score.

The two most important things you can do to ensure effective board meetings are 1) to have specific goals for each meeting; and 2) to design an effective agenda to achieve those goals. For example, instead of oral committee reports, written reports could easily be sent in advance so that members come prepared to act. That frees up precious meeting time for important discussion and decisionmaking, as well as occasional board enrichment sessions that can make serving on the board a more pleasurable and rewarding experience.

As fiduciaries of the chorus, the board is entrusted with the responsibility to make decisions that affect its future financial and organizational health. It is the board chair's role to ensure that board members can exercise this responsibility with care—that they have the appropriate background information and enough time to discuss the ramifications of any item on the agenda scheduled for a vote. As part of your corporate records, the board meeting minutes should accurately reflect those voting for and against any board action.

Whether your board uses Robert's Rules of Order, Roberta's, or a hybrid, determine the rules to operate by, communicate them to old and new members alike, and follow them religiously. Your meetings will function more smoothly if everyone understands the rules of engagement."

Respect your board members' time by ensuring that your meetings begin and end on time. One way to do this is by using a consent agenda, where items (such as committee reports or updates) that do not need any additional explanations or discussion are sent in advance with board meeting materials and grouped into one agenda item that can be approved by consent. Any board member can request that an item be removed from the consent agenda by contacting the board chair in advance to reserve time on the agenda for discussion of that item. Using a consent agenda saves time, but until this practice is fully accepted as part of your operating procedures, it can take additional time to collect committee reports in advance.

Another time-saving method is to use a timed agenda, which lists the discussion time for each agenda item. It is the board chair's job to make good use of meeting time and to monitor the progression of agenda items. If the assigned time for an item has expired before action is taken, the chair can poll the board to see if the group wants to continue the discussion—by agreeing to shorten discussion time for another item, extending the meeting time, or tabling the discussion and assigning it to a committee or task force for further research.

Motivating Your Team

Perhaps the board chair's most elusive responsibility is to motivate others, to galvanize them to join in on the challenging work of governing their chorus. It starts with ensuring that every board member is actively involved and has a committee assignment or task that fits their specific skill sets (or, in some cases, a skill set they would like to acquire).

Board chairs delegate responsibility by appointing committee and task force chairs and ensuring that each group has a clear purpose and timeline for achieving their objectives. Stay in touch with each of the chairs, both to ensure that the committee work is being done and to learn of any needs or challenges they may have encountered. When I was board chair, our executive committee (consisting of board officers and committee and task force chairs) met in the off months (when there was no full board meeting) to ensure that our work was proceeding smoothly, set agendas, make mid-course corrections, and gather appropriate materials for our full board meetings.

Frequent follow-up is essential to success. The board chair notices when a board member misses consecutive meetings and calls to find out if something has changed that makes active participation difficult. The board chair makes sure that minutes and meeting materials are circulated as soon as possible to those who missed the meeting and clarifies actions steps agreed upon, following up to ensure that each one is being addressed.

The board chair is also responsible for making sure that each board member fulfills his fundraising commitment. After consultation with the fundraising committee and staff to clarify specifics, the board chair makes personal calls to ask for their annual board gift. If your board is large, sometimes this responsibility is shared with the fundraising chair and/or members of the fundraising committee. However, this is not a responsibility that a board chair can delegate to staff or a fundraising consultant.

Service on your board is not meant to be an endless series of meetings about fundraising goals and budgets or other operating details. Although board service is serious work, it should also be an enriching and pleasant experience. Be sure to schedule some time to get to know each other better by setting aside social time at the beginning or end of a board meeting or at a special gathering in someone's home. You should also schedule periodic educational or enrichment opportunities for your board members. If you are getting ready to launch a new artistic or educational initiative, invite a guest artist or educator to speak and lead a discussion. If you are getting ready to focus on a challenging new fundraising goal or campaign, ask a fundraising consultant or an experience fundraising volunteer to lead a discussion about the current fundraising environment and conduct training sessions to give everyone the tools they need so that they are more comfortable about what they've been asked to undertake.

As you can see, while it is an honor to be asked to serve as chorus board chair, it is definitely not an honorary position! But with advance planning and preparation, a solid relationship with administrative and artistic staff, and a group of committed folks on your board team, each of your objectives can be accomplished. And you can be proud of rising to the challenge of leading your chorus to new levels of success.

[1]"The Best and Worst of Board Chairs" by Yvonne Harrison and Vic Murray, the Nonprofit Quarterly, Summer 2007

[2]The artistic/music director also has an ongoing communication with the board chair around artistic issues. Schedule joint communication meetings between board chair and artistic and administrative staff leadership whenever possible.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Fall 2007.>