Structured Board Evaluation Keys Engagement

October 17, 2011       Dennis Miller      

The roles and responsibilities of boards and their members have been well researched and written about by experts in the field. Based upon my experience, knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things. To unlock your board’s true potential, boards need to constantly re-examine their own performance and make the necessary improvements that have been identified through their assessment process.

Two important aspects of improving a board’s governance are:

* Selecting the board chair; and,

* Reappointing board members.

The chair or president of the board of directors plays an extremely important role for a nonprofit organization. The chair and the group’s chief executive are the two key people in steering a nonprofit towards its vision.

There needs to be a positive relationship between the board chair and the chief executive. A good chair works with the chief executive behind the scenes and stays in close communication with all board members. The chair of the board keeps track of the work of each board committee, plans meeting agendas, leads assessments of the board and chief executive, and helps recruit new board members.

As successfully outlined in “The Board Chair Handbook,” written by William and Linda Dietel, the duties of the nonprofit board chair bear little resemblance to the job of a for-profit board chair. Often in the for-profit world, the chair of the board is also the chief executive officer, and thus involved in managing the organization’s overall operation. This is not true for most nonprofits. The board chair focuses on the big picture, keeping an eye on the institution’s mission, vision, and long-term sustainability.

As the leader of the board, the chair helps the board as a whole to think strategically about the organization’s achievements for mission, vision and long-term goals, in the context in which it operates.

The board chair must be a strong strategic thinker who is able to make difficult decisions and willing to be accountable for the organization’s sustainability. The role of the chair differs from organization-to-organization and even within an organization as it evolves over time.

While the board chair is the chief volunteer officer and is charged with leading the board, the entire weight of the board’s work does not fall completely on the shoulders of one person. Rather, the board as a whole shares responsibility because it should speak with one voice. The board chair needs to delegate to and empower board members, encouraging each of them to take ownership of their assigned responsibilities.

Therefore, selecting the best person available for the board chair is crucial to unlocking your board’s true potential.

Here are 10 specific actions that can be undertaken to identify and appoint your board chair:

* Immediately begin to assess the leadership talent of current board members.

* Ask your current board chair to begin as soon as possible to identify potential candidates.

* Institute ongoing board training for all board members.

* Offer the chair-elect a professional board coach/mentor.

* Ensure that the board’s work is done efficiently.

* Find ways to reward and recognize your board members for the job they do.

* Provide opportunities for all board members to participate in a wide array of committees, task forces and advisory boards.

* Highlight the organization’s continuous strides for excellence.

* Recognize former board chairs for their contributions.

* Recognize and address the reasons that appointing a board chair is difficult.

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Dennis Miller is the president & chief executive officer of Dennis C. Miller Associates, Morristown, N.J. He is the author of "The Nonprofit Board Therapist: A Guide to Unlocking Your Organization’s True Potential" and "A Guide To Achieving New Heights: The Four Pillars of Successful Nonprofit Leadership."  His email is dennis@dcmillerassciates.com