November 7, 2016 – Board Change & Intention

Teresa HuizarGood morning and happy Monday. I hope this finds everyone well. It is hard to believe that 2016 is drawing to a close already. As the end of the year approaches, I know that for many CACs that also means the end of board terms and transitions in board leadership. Some may approach that transition with sadness; others with trepidation. But the question I want to focus on today is whether that transition is approached with preparation. 

That is the question at the center of a survey conducted by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management’s Governance Affinity Group. The researchers surveyed 635 self-identified nonprofit board chairs representing local, regional, and national organizations in 42 states. The results are summarized in an article published in The Nonprofit Quarterly, and titled “Voices of Board Chairs:  A National Study on the Perspective of Nonprofit Board Chairs.”[1]

The role of the board chair is a critical one in most nonprofit organizations. One might assume, therefore, that preparing the incoming board chair for the responsibilities and demands of the position would be a well-established procedure. Given the results of the survey, however, that assumption is flat wrong. What the researchers found instead was “a pretty glaring picture of neglect, in that this is an area of organizational leadership succession that is often insufficiently thought through.”  Id., p. 1. 

The survey found that “[a]bout half of the respondents (51 percent) indicated that they did nothing specific to prepare to become a board chair….  And when considering possible preparatory steps, like first holding a different officer seat or chairing a board committee, only 48% of the respondents stated that they had held the role of vice-chair.” Id. And although “[e]ighty percent of respondents thought that serving as a committee chair was helpful experience for becoming a board chair, [they] did not indicate that it was an intentional route to board chair.” Id.

Nevertheless, board chairs were not operating completely without resources—they “frequently pointed to the prior board chair as having an influence on them….  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.”  Id

They were also asked the following:  “In hindsight, what one resource, person or experience would you like to have had to help you prepare to be a board chair?”  Id., p. 2. In response, four common themes emerged: “1) mentoring; 2) peer networking; 3) training; and 4) access to a specific resource on demand.” Id. Overall, those responding to the survey indicated both interest and a willingness to learn—but not much in the way of opportunities given to them to do so prior to assuming their leadership role.
When asked about their specific duties as board chair, they overwhelmingly identified the following as the top three: 
  • 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.
Id.  Interestingly, very few (only 18 percent) “indicated that they frequently engaged in advocacy or interacted with other boards” and only thirty percent “indicated that they “frequently” met with current or potential donors….”  Id., p. 4. To the researchers, this indicated a lack of understanding as to the roles and responsibilities of the board chair.

Based on the findings, and “as a platform to inform nonprofit and capacity-building practices,” id., p. 6, the researchers made several recommendations for future practice. Chief among them is the recommendation that nonprofits “establish an intentional, well-developed practice of board chair preparation and succession planning.” Id. They also recommend that organizations “provide training, mentoring and coaching opportunities specifically for board chairs” as a means to clarifying “the role of the chair in relationship to the full board, the CEO, and the organization’s community, so that there is shared agreement within the board.”  Id

You don’t have to recreate the proverbial wheel to establish these recommendations as practice.  There are a number of terrific resources out there for board development, including Blue Avocado, BoardSource, and Nonprofit Quarterly, to name but a few. The point is, though, that great board chairs don’t just happen—they require training, mentoring and support to fully understand their role, and to fully execute their responsibilities.

I would encourage you to download both the summary and the report, and to share them with your board. Start the discussion now, so the transition later can be one that works to the greatest advantage of your organization and the communities you serve.

As always, I thank you for all your hard work and dedication and for all that you do on behalf of children and families.

Warm regards,  
[1] The full report is available here | 516 C Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002 US

Copyright © 2016 National Children's Alliance, All rights reserved.

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