Preparing for the Board Chair Role: Opportunities & Challenges

The Governance Affinity Group of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management recently published a report based on its survey of 635 nonprofit board chairs from across the country. As one of the few studies done specifically with board chairs, it sought to answer two research questions: “How do individuals prepare for their role as chair of a nonprofit board?” and, “What do board chairs perceive their leadership roles to be in relationship to the board, the community, and the CEO?” While not entirely surprising, the results highlight the significant challenges nonprofits currently face with leadership development, while also illuminating the opportunities present in addressing this issue. This piece will focus on the issue of preparation for the board chair role, and a follow up piece will focus on the perception issues.

Broad findings highlighted the challenges related to the preparation issue, as 51% of respondents had done nothing specific to prepare for their role as board chair, and only 24% were even recommended for the job by the board’s nominating committee. In addition, only 19% indicated that becoming chair was a natural progression for them, and an almost negligible 13% had held the role of vice chair. In short, a large majority of board chairs were not groomed or prepared for the role.

While a stark reminder of the current reality, these figures also illustrate that boards have to address this issue more proactively and build a structured process to develop the board and its leaders.

As a starting point for that process, develop a governance committee and charge it with building the board and its leadership succession, as well as assessing the structure and engagement of the current board. If a board committee isn’t addressing this issue in an ongoing manner, board members tend to remain passive and allow current leaders to do the majority of the work. Too often recruitment and leadership selection defaults to an annual task rather than ongoing organizational work. So, have your board leadership take charge of this issue and put in place a structure that ensures board and leadership development are ongoing efforts.

The report also highlighted what new board chairs found to be helpful as they took on their new roles: 82% said serving on a committee had been useful, 70% gaining support from the prior chair, 58% getting advice from the CEO, and 42% getting information on the role from the internet, 37% from books and 33% from trainings.

These responses illustrate the value of developing active committees that can provide future leaders with the opportunity to gain hands on experience and the benefits that developing a mentoring culture through efforts like a “board buddy” program can bring. Additionally, they highlight the opportunity nonprofits have to access the resources and training available through management support organizations like the Maine Association of Nonprofits (MANP) and BoardSource to develop board members’ skills and role awareness.

On the subject of resources, the board chairs reported that the five most useful topic areas to prepare for their roles were: boards & governance, leadership (not necessarily specific to nonprofit boards), managing meetings, nonprofit board chairs, and team/group management. When asked what resources they didn’t have that would have been most helpful for their preparation for their roles, they answered: mentoring, peer networking, training and access to on demand resources. While a mentoring culture can and should be developed internally, resources like training, topical information about board leadership, managing meetings, peer networking and on demand resources can be easily accessed through organizations like MANP and many others.

While the survey’s results can be viewed as alarming, they also shine a light on the opportunity nonprofit boards can create by taking ownership of board and leadership development and building the structure, accountability, and support necessary to achieve their goals. Don’t delay. Your investment in developing a culture of leadership development and mission accountability can have powerful results and will help take your nonprofit to new levels of impact.

Scott Schnapp authored this blog post in his role as a Consulting Partner here at Starboard, and it is an example of the kind of helpful guidance you’ll find in the blog section of our website: You can get in touch with Scott, or any member of our consulting team, by using the contact form that you’ll find on the Starboard website. We hope to hear from you!