Board chair’s charge for collaborative leadership: Inspire, inform and involve

Special to Philanthropy Journal

By Patti Gillenwater

As board chair of a nonprofit, do you ever feel like you are herding cats? If the answer to that question is “Yes!” then you are doing a great job. Leading a nonprofit board is one of the most challenging leadership jobs you will ever have. Take a moment to think about your fellow board members. Why are they on your board? The answers will be as varied and individual as each person sitting around the table. Here is a list of common reasons:

  • Passion for the cause
  • Representing a funder
  • Has a friend on the board
  • Wants to do business with someone on the board
  • Cares about some portion of the organization’s work
  • Wants board experience to build a resume

Think about the decisions you need to have made by the board and how these various agendas could impact the way different board members will discuss the issues and how they will vote. Hold that thought for a moment. What are the different backgrounds of your board members? Usually, they will fit one of the following categories:

  • Subject matter expert related to your work
  • Business leader
  • Technical expert: accountant, attorney, human resources, marketing
  • Community volunteer

Now we have an additional layer of complexity in the boardroom because of the type of expertise and perspective each person brings to the group. This diversity is a huge benefit to any organization, and a good chair needs to know how to leverage it.

So, back to the herding cats analogy! As the leader of this diverse group whose member have strong feelings about the decisions being made, different abilities to understand some issues more than others and differing levels of engagement in the process – it is up to you to set the stage and direct the action, so the best possible decisions will be made and everyone will be ready to back them up.

Your role as chair is by necessity one of collaboration. You might be accustomed to leading your own employees with a more directive style, but this approach will not work with a board comprised of volunteers. Conversely, you might not have much leadership experience or your philosophy might go to the other extreme, and that will create a leadership vacuum at the board level.

At the core of collaborative leadership is the ability to inspire members to action,inform them so they can make good decisions and involve all members in the process.

An inspirational board chair is not the best orator in the room. This situation is when actions do speak louder than words. By accepting the role of chair, you must be able to consistently fulfill all of the duties of that role for your organization. That means being consistently active in the meetings, fundraising calls and other aspects of this role for your nonprofit.

A chair who is not committed can quickly cause the board and staff to lose faith in the organization. On the other hand, when others see the hard work being done by the chair, they will step up their contributions, and everyone benefits.

Having a well-informed board is a challenge in today’s information overload world. The chair should determine what needs to be known about the performance of the organization and communicate that clearly and concisely without sacrificing the significance of the information.

Involving board members is critical, and because you have inspired and informed them, they will be prepared to take action in meaningful ways. Here the chair’s leadership during board meetings is vital. Structuring the meetings to spend time discussing important issues and encouraging healthy debate are fundamental to an involved board and good decision-making for your organization.

Every member of your board is there for a reason. If they do not feel like they have a meaningful voice, their interest and commitment will wane. Two extremes often appear in the boardroom. The
first contributes only when invited. The chair should take note and ask that member for input. 

Unfortunately, abrasive board members can end up on nonprofit boards. Depending on the nature of the behavior, the chair must address this quickly. In the case of an overly talkative person, you can gently steer the conversation to move on. For more extreme behaviors, a conversation after the meeting is probably best.

The chair establishes the culture of the boardroom, and setting the behavior parameters at the outset will minimize any unwelcome behavior and need to take corrective actions. After all, you are also a volunteer leader and there for a reason. This is supposed to be fun as well as rewarding for you, too!

Patti Gillenwater is CEO of Elinvar. A Philanthropy Journal Sponsor, Elinvar is a retained search and leadership development firm that specializes in serving mission driven organizations in North Carolina.

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