Study Shows Board Chairs Mostly Unprepared To Lead

Nonprofit boards have placed a focus on leadership training and succession planning for organizational executives in recent years. Board chairs, themselves, might be in need of some on-the-job training.

More than half (51 percent) of board chairs state that they did not do anything specific to prepare for their role and fewer than one in five board chairs (19 percent) view their ascension to the role of chair as a “natural progression.”

Alliance for Nonprofit Management surveyed board chairs from 635 organizations to determine what prepared for them for their service as board chair and their role and relationship with the organization’s CEO, fellow board members and community. The results, according to the survey, show a need for succession planning, board chair training and divvying up of duties.

Being the chair of a committee within the organization proved to be the most common past experience for board chairs (65 percent). It was followed by vice chair (48 percent), secretary or clerk (22 percent) and treasurer (19 percent).

Absent a formalized process, seeking advice from the CEO (58 percent) and outgoing chair (50 percent) were methods turned to by respondents. The Internet, (42 percent), local workshops (37 percent), and books (33 percent) were other sources of guidance.

The mechanics of being a board chair was actually only the fourth most common subject found helpful in research. Information about boards and governance, leadership not specific to boards and how to manage meetings led the way.

The study’s recommendations note that just 56 percent of board chairs had been at their organization for at least three years before becoming chair and 16 percent had only been there for one year. Succession planning coupled with training, coaching and mentoring opportunities for board chairs is thus recommended.

The second set of questions, relations with other members of the organization and community, yielded a variety of results. Board chairs most commonly saw themselves as a leadership partner (70 percent) and sounding board (58 percent) for the CEO. Leading factors to the board chair and CEO relationship were communicating between meetings, meeting mutual obligations and mutual trust.
Board chairs reported that they saw their leading duty in relation to fellow board members as keeping focus on organizational direction (64 percent) followed by ensuring fulfillment of governance responsibilities (49 percent) and presiding over meetings (42 percent).

Interaction with the community typically means making appearances at community events (91 percent), and promoting constituent involvement (84 percent). Meeting with current or prospective donors (55 percent) lagged behind.

The study recommends, among other steps, building leadership capacity for many board leaders, improving board activity in advocacy and community engagement activities and moving away from “heroic” leadership models toward shared models that might feature co-chairs, multiple board leaders with separate responsibilities or expanded responsibilities for executive committees.