Voices of Board Chairs: A National Study on the Perspectives of Nonprofit Board Chairs

Editors’ note: This article was adapted from a research report by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, published on August 23, 2016. Visit allianceonline.org to access the full report. The research for this report was conducted by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management’s Governance Affinity Group. For information about the next phase of research, contact Judy Freiwirth at Judy@NonprofitSA.com. Additionally, this article is from the Nonprofit Quarterly’s fall 2016 edition, “The Nonprofit Workforce: Overcoming Obstacles.”

There is relatively little research that investigates the topic of nonprofit board chair leadership, but this role is pivotal in many organizations. It helps to structure, uphold, and revise the container for dialogue and disciplines for managing conversation, and to establish the atmosphere for deliberation. This takes a measure of sophistication as well as self-awareness regarding the match between one’s own personal leadership characteristics and the needs of the board, the organization, and the community served. But do nonprofits honor this leverage point with the attention it deserves? Maybe not.

So, as a group of practitioner researchers, we decided to find out what preparation is done by board chairs and how they see their role in relationship to the board and other stakeholders. What we found was a pretty glaring picture of neglect, in that this is an area of organizational leadership succession that is often insufficiently thought through. What follows are our findings from a survey of 635 self-identified nonprofit board chairs representing local, regional, and national organizations in forty-two states, and the recommendations to nonprofits we make in light of these findings.

The Findings

Preparation for the Board Chair Role

A primary focus of this study was to learn about nonprofit board chair preparation. More specifically, questions were directed to learn about the resources, tools, and/or activities perceived to be helpful to individuals in preparing themselves to become a board chair; whether or not individuals prepared in any way ahead of assuming the chair position; and how individuals were selected to be chairs.

About half of the respondents (51 percent) indicated that they did nothing specific to prepare to become a board chair. When provided with a range of specific ways they might have prepared for the board chair role, only a little over half of the respondents (56 percent) stated they followed some intentional process. And when considering possible preparatory steps, like first holding a different officer seat or chairing a board committee, only 48 percent of the respondents stated that they had held the role of vice-chair. Eighty percent of respondents thought that serving as a committee chair was helpful experience for becoming a board chair, but did not indicate that it was an intentional route to board chair. Only 19 percent of respondents indicated that “becoming a chair was a natural progression,” but the data didn’t reveal how that was interpreted by the respondents. Only 24 percent reported that they were recommended by their nominating committee when asked how they came to be board chair.

Probing further, the research team wanted to understand what people, resources, or experiences board chairs felt were helpful to them in preparing for their position. The board chair respondents frequently pointed to the prior board chair as having an influence on them. Seventy percent rated “observing the prior board chair” as helpful or very helpful, and 50 percent found asking the outgoing chair for advice helpful or very helpful. Fifty-eight percent also found asking the CEO for advice high on their list for helpfulness. Interestingly, consultants and coaches were reported as the least likely to be found helpful and also the least likely to be considered a resource.

Chairs identified the Internet (42 percent), local workshops (37 percent), and books they had purchased (33 percent) when asked about what sources of information were found helpful. It is interesting to note that only 11 percent of respondents described their local libraries as somewhat to very helpful.

In their preparation, when given choices of subject matter that board chairs found helpful, boards and governance rose to the top, as Table 1 demonstrates.

In the open-ended comments made in response to the above questions, board chairs referred most frequently to different types of experiences — rather than people or information — they found helpful in preparing to become board chair. For instance, 82 percent of the board chairs found that serving on a committee, in their current or a previous nonprofit, was a helpful preparatory experience.

In fact, this was a much more common experience for the responding board chairs than any board officer role. Fifty-two percent indicated that being a board chair in another nonprofit was a helpful preparatory experience. The final question about preparation for becoming a board chair was: “In hindsight, what one resource, person, or experience would you like to have had to help you prepare to be a board chair?” The most common themes that emerged in response included: 1) mentoring; 2) peer networking; 3) training; and 4) access to a specific resource on demand.

Overall, the board chairs’ responses indicated interest and a willingness to learn. They tended to look to a colleague such as a former board chair and/or the CEO within their current organization for advice, and were not aware of — or chose not to use — a variety of resources external to their nonprofits that might be helpful to their role as chair.

Perceptions of the Board Chair Role

A second focus of the survey was board chairs’ perceptions of their role, specifically in relationship to the board, the CEO, and the community. These relationships align with Yvonne Harrison and Vic Murray’s three sets of relationships within which board chairs execute their leadership role in nonprofits: the chair in relation to the board; the chair in relation to the CEO; and the chair in relation to external stakeholders or the community.1

1. Chair Role in Relation to the Board

Primary Duties

Respondents were asked to identify what they perceived to be their top three duties as board chair in relation to the board. They selected the top three duties from a list of eleven commonly accepted board chair duties found in the practitioner literature. Duties ranking the highest included the following:

  • Keep the board’s focus on the organization’s strategic direction: 64 percent.
  • Ensure the board fulfills its governance responsibilities: 49 percent.
  • Preside over and manage board meetings: 42 percent.

Respondents, however, expressed their reluctance to choose three “top” duties, as they viewed their role with the board as both multifaceted and often situational.

Leadership Model

To further understand the board chairs’ understanding of their role, the survey also solicited perceptions about the board chairs’ style of leadership. The research team hypothesized that the style of leadership may affect perceptions regarding role. With this premise in mind, the survey asked respondents to select the type of leader they perceived themselves to be from a list of four options. A little over half of the respondents felt that they were a “team builder who cultivates other leadership and delegates responsibility,” and only about a quarter of the respondents reported that they “build widespread consensus before action can be taken.”

About 8 percent of respondents described themselves as a “take-charge, forge-ahead, and decisive, independent leader.” Three percent of respondents stated that the CEO or another board member was actually leading the board. Seven percent chose “other” as a response, and a percentage of these respondents described themselves as a combination of the choices, depending on the situation.

Perceptions Regarding Leadership

Perceptions of the experience in leading as chair also matter when attempting to understand the chair-to-board relationship. The survey offered board chairs five choices to describe their feelings about leading the board. Chairs reported high degrees of feeling competent (87 percent), supported (81 percent), and confident (84 percent). Seventy percent reported sometimes feeling frustrated, and only 34 percent sometimes felt isolated.

Leadership Practice

An additional insight about the role of the chair in relation to the board is provided by understanding the process for constructing board meeting agendas. When the respondents were asked who was the most responsible for developing board meeting agendas, 42 percent indicated that they developed agendas in collaboration with their CEO, 16 percent indicated that the CEO developed the agenda, and 15 percent developed it alone. See further details in Table 5.

The comments regarding who was most responsible for developing board meeting agendas were nuances of the above. For example, some common responses included: “the agenda is created in the executive committee on which the CEO serves” or “the CEO draws up the agenda in collaboration with the board chair.”

2. Chair Role in Relation to the CEO

As stated earlier, a second perspective for understanding the role of the chair can be gained from understanding the board chair’s relationship to that of the CEO. Therefore, in the survey respondents were asked to describe the nature of their relationship with the CEO and the specific roles of each.

Nature of the Board Chair–CEO Relationship

When asked to describe what their relationship with the CEO was built on, respondents selected the following:

  • Communication between meetings: 92 percent.
  • Meeting obligations to one another: 90 percent.
  • Mutual trust: 88 percent.

Specific Role in Relation to the CEO

Respondents also described what they perceived to be their role in relationship to the CEO. The survey offered a list of normative practices from which to choose. Chairs were asked to select “not applicable” if they did not feel an option was an appropriate role for a board chair. The highest ranking roles in the board chairs’ relationship to their CEO (cited as “most” or “all of the time”) were: as a leadership partner (73 percent) and as the CEO’s sounding board (58 percent).

A majority of chairs (81 percent) identified themselves as at least “sometimes” serving as a consultant to the CEO on operational issues; almost a third (30 percent) of the chairs selected the option “most of the time” or “always”; 77 percent identified themselves as supervising their CEO at least some of the time, with 46 percent of that group finding themselves in that role “most of the time” or “always.” Table 6 provides additional responses.

As another reference point to understand the chair–CEO relationship, chairs were asked to describe their “power relationship.” Sixty-three percent described the CEO and chair as equally strong, with 19 percent stating that they had a strong CEO and a weak board. Many of the comments on this question indicated some transitions in the relationship or that the chair was currently working to strengthen the relationship.

3. Board Chair’s Leadership Role in Relationship to Stakeholders and the Community

The third relationship area explored was the role of the chair in relation to stakeholders and the community. Both the nonprofit research and practitioner sectors have been increasingly interested in encouraging boards to engage to a greater extent with external stakeholders and the communities they serve, as well as to engage in advocacy and public policy.

Respondents reported that they were most engaged with the community by attending community events (49 percent “sometimes”; 42 percent “frequently”), and promoting involvement of constituents (39 percent “sometimes” and 45 percent “frequently”). The findings, however, were unclear regarding how survey participants understood the meaning of “promoting involvement by constituents with their organization.” Only 18 percent indicated that they frequently engaged in advocacy or interacted with other boards, and 12 percent indicated that they “frequently” spoke to the media. Thirty percent of respondents indicated that they “frequently” met with current or potential donors, while a little over half (55 percent) of the respondents reported that they “sometimes” met with current and potential donors.

4. Coleadership among CEOs or Board Chairs

Most boards follow traditional practices in which one board member, individually, assumes the leadership role of the board chair. While there is increasing discussion within the sector that the solo leadership role of the board chair is onerous and that a coleadership or shared leadership model might lead to more effective governance, there has been little experimentation or research in this area. For this reason, the survey asked about cochair and other shared leadership models. The responses revealed that only 6 percent of the chairs described themselves as cochairs. As a way to understand the leadership culture in their organizations, the respondents were also asked to describe shared leadership models within their staff. Only 8 percent of the respondents reported that their organizations had coexecutive leadership; the highest percentages reporting this were from arts, culture, and humanities organizations (15 percent) and environmental organizations (14 percent).

The Nonprofit CEOs

The survey also included questions requesting general information about the presence of, and the circumstances surrounding, the chief executive officers within the respondents’ organizations.

Length of Time CEO in Current Position

Finally, board chair respondents were asked to identify the length of time that their current CEO — or last CEO, if the organization was in leadership transition — had been in the position. The findings revealed a relatively even distribution of tenure lengths for the CEO, from only one to two years to more than twelve years.

To read the rest of this extensive study’s findings, including tables and graphs that are missing from this excerpt, you can find the full article on NPQ’s website below:

Originally published at nonprofitquarterly.org on October 12, 2016.