Good Board Chairs Don’t Grow on Trees


Good board chairs are worth their weight in gold but they don’t grow on tress.

As I was preparing for the taping of an interview with Natasha Golinsky of Next Level Nonprofits this week (available soon), I took the time to look back over the past 25 years and count how many nonprofit boards of directors I’ve either served on, worked for, or consulted with. I’ve no idea how it might stack up to other consultants or volunteers, but it seems like a lot to me: 34. Then I realized that I’ve worked with that many or more board chairs. That got me thinking about the good ones and … well… to put it bluntly … the not so good ones.

I’d like to quickly point out that I’ve been served as board chair or vice chair for six organizations. It’s not an easy job and I have lots of respect for ANYONE who takes on the challenge of leading a nonprofit board. My experience as a board chair has been mixed. The first time I was too young and didn’t really know what I was doing. I’ve been effective to varying degrees in each of the others depending on how much time and energy I put in to it.

So, what does it take to be a good board chair. Of course, it depends. There are a myriad of factors that you should consider when either recruiting a board chair, or deciding whether to accept an invitation to become a board chair. But generally, there are probably a handful of universal factors or criteria to consider. Here’s a short list of what I think is important. (In no particular order since it takes a combination of things to be successful.)

  • Willingness to make the organization one of their top three recipients of donations.
  • Willingness to become an identifiable leader of the organization in the community.
  • Willingness and ability to invite others to give their money, talents and time.
  • A strategic mindset versus a caretaker/trustee mentality.
  • Willing to be present. Let’s face it, being board chair takes a lot of time and we should just be up front about it.
  • Ease and comfort with facilitating meetings.
  • Has skills as a diplomat: not afraid of disagreements and conflict and can manage it well or get someone who can.
  • Understands the unique character of the philanthropic sector.
  • Willingness to attend AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) or other training/learning/networking opportunities.
  • Understands that he or she is a partner with the CEO (or executive director) and the chief fundraiser (if you have one). He or she must have the ability to work as a member of this team to be effective.
  • Knows how to light the fire and passion for the cause or find someone who can.
  • They are funny and don’t take things too seriously. Really. It helps.

There may be a slew of other things you need to consider depending on your unique circumstance. (For instance, in some cases you might need an idea person or entrepreneur. In others, you might need someone to maintain current governance and operational functions.)

What have I forgotten? Are there personality types that should never be a board chair? Do you have examples? Let me know what you think.

Coming next week: How do you decide which social media to use?