How to be the Board Chair you want to be (hint: you’re going to need to ask for help)
After attending numerous nonprofit-specific conferences, I noticed a trend: at least one breakout session reserved for Executive Directors to share best practices, seek advice, or simply lament on the woes of being a nonprofit Executive Director. But, what about a dedicated space for nonprofit board chairs, particularly those on working boards?
At the 2016 YNPN national conference, both current and incoming YNPN chapter board chairs convened to have this much overdue conversation. I was nearing my second year serving as the YNPN Triangle's chair at that time. No surprise to me, I gained much insight from my peers. Here’s are five key takeaways from our conversation:
1) You must establish the type of culture you want for your board upfront.
All of us in the room agreed that we had to be proactive to establish the tone and culture for our boards. If we choose not to act, then a culture would still take root. In our experiences, these types of cultures often ran counter to the values and norms needed to be a supportive, productive, and accountable team.
Some board chairs established culture with a clear vision. Others built out their culture by voicing clear expectations and procedures. All of us agreed that equity, diversity, and inclusion played a foundational role in our organization’s culture-building. Many of us in the space identified as white women. While this gender and racial make-up reflects the current nonprofit sector, all of us urgently voiced that we could – and must – do better. That requires us to instill in our boards that same urgency to push back against the status quo in how we recruit committee and board members; how we host programming and events; and how we talk about our movement and work more broadly. If we didn’t prioritize this as a part of our board culture, we couldn’t fully execute our long-term goal of establishing a strong and inclusive social sector.
2) The board chair cannot micro-manage.
We all share a strong sense of duty when it comes to supporting and leading our organizations. At the same time, we realized that what we may perceive as “helping” can be perceived as “stepping on toes” and end up undermining the very culture you sought to build in step one.
Board chairs have a specific role to play – and it’s not taking on the responsibilities of fellow board members. For those board chairs who work in the nonprofit sector, it’s difficult to escape that martyrdom myth. But, staying up all hours to finish stuffing board binders the night of the retreat or cranking out a last-minute newsletter won’t build a better board culture and won’t contribute to a better you.
"Board chairs need to know the answer to this question for each person on the team."
Our job is to discover what makes our fellow board directors tick. All of us have elected to volunteer to our time for this organization. Why? Board chairs need to know the answer to this question for each person on the team. This is how we build that pipeline for leadership.
3) Chairs need to know when to cheer and when to pull out the cuffs.
Young leaders bring creative, fantastic ideas to our organizations. Some of these ideas will flourish; others will drag down the team into rabbit holes that could take months or years to dig out from. Board chairs need to know when to push the correct pedal – the gas or the brake.
This is hard. As young leaders ourselves, it’s difficult for us not to get swept up in a new, exciting proposal that sounds wonderful but will inevitably lead to burnout or serious mission drift. There is a clear difference between encouraging ideas that may fail versus encouraging ideas that will create harm.
"Failure can and should happen in our organizations."
Failure can and should happen in our organizations. A benefit of serving on a YNPN board of directors is that we can test out theories, programs, and campaigns without the fear of being fired. If our ideas do crash and burn, we have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to learn from them and share our learnings with others.
4) Being a board chair can feel isolating, so build support networks outside of the organization.
As a board chair, we spend a great deal of time helping others to problem solve that when we need help, we find few options. This is why it is important for us to reach out across organizations and chapters and build relationships with fellow board chairs.
"It is important for us to reach out across organizations and chapters and build relationships with fellow board chairs."
You may only need to hear that “I’ve totally been there” response as affirmation for your current situation. You may need a laugh over a shared frustration (such as that time when this board member started to argue and then admitted halfway through that they had not actually read the policy they were currently lamenting). It may even be something as simple as: “When do you hold meetings? For how long? What has that done for the organization?”
5) Being a board chair is humbling.
Each of us felt such honor to be in our positions. We recognized that our fellow board directors count on us to show up and perform our duties, even when we didn’t feel like it. Some of us preferred to brush off our roles, preferring to lift up our fellow team members and their work rather than taking credit simply because of our title.
Having the opportunity to serve as board chair had given all of us a wealth of knowledge and experience that has translated into our professional lives. Having a grounding in governance and financial literacy opened up promotions and new career opportunities. Developing strong supervisory and management skills allowed us to shift into positions where we could flex those skills. Building a board culture rooted in equity, diversity, and inclusivity allowed us to be stronger champions in our own workplaces and in our sector because we could provide first-hand testimonials of what is possible when leaders put those values into actions.
Katie serves as the Director of Digital Strategies with the NC League of Conservation Voters, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates on behalf of protecting North Carolina's natural resources. In this role, she oversees membership engagement, including holding elected officials accountable on making environmentally-sound decisions, as well as providing education on how to influence policy that keeps our water and air clean. Katie received a Master of Public Administration and Nonprofit Leadership Certificate from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2013. Outside of the nonprofit sector, Katie enjoys reading, running, cooking, traveling, watching sports, and indulging in the North Carolina craft beer scene. Follow her on Twitter @NoYinKatie.