Your relationships with your board chair can be better—much better.
You, the CEO, picked (or agreed to work with*) this individual to partner with you to lead your organization. The Board Chair partnership is a key to nonprofit success and your job satisfaction.**
Running a nonprofit is a big undertaking. So, divide the work. The board chair leads the board. To coordinate the effort with the chair, talk often.
❌ Doing it Wrong:
You put off your chair meeting because you’re busy. When you meet, the agenda’s vast. Afterward, you’re toast.
✅ Get it Right:
💡Try This: Three Birds, One Stone
Every Friday, prepare an email outlining your week’s activities for the chair. Doing this:
1. Updates your chair
2. Captures accomplishments
3. Builds self-evaluation into your schedule
When a new chair begins, a backlog of work waits. So it’s easy to neglect ground rules. Ground rules set expectations. They avoid mix-ups. Developing and refining “how you do together” builds trust. “Trust is the most powerful governing tool.”said Jane Wei-Skillern in a @BoardSource talk. (Read more on board ground rules here.)
❌ Doing It Wrong:
Your chair reads an angry donor’s note at a board meeting. Until that moment, you didn’t know there was a problem.
✅ Get It Right:
💡Try this: Low Stakes Difficult Conversations
In your first meetings, ask (and be ready to answer) an awkward question. Such as, “What’s the best way to tell you you’re micromanaging?” Or, “What’s your biggest concern about this organization?” Doing this:
1. Signals that you’ll disagree some
2. Opens the door to truth-telling
3. Keeps “how we work together” on the agenda
CEOs stay, but chairs cycle in and out. Running a nonprofit means the board chair and CEO focus on now and later.
❌ Do it Wrong:
Your board chair and two members announce they’ll resign soon. You panic since you’re clueless about who will take their seats.
✅ Get it Right:
💡Try This: Harvest Your Best Practices
Capture the steps your leader took to their positions. Ask, which roles helped the most? Doing this:
1. Reviews existing leadership paths and needs
2. Reveals patterns to repeat
3. Creates a baseline to measure progress.
Your partnership with your chair can be the finest-kind. Effective communication ensures that you lead in one direction. Ground rules allow you to move independently and feel safe. Knowing your pipelines frees you to focus.
Which of these best practices do you follow now? Which will you fine-tune?
*You didn’t quit!
**Thanks to Karen’s CEO Conversation attendees and interviewees who shared some of their wisdom and ideas for this post.
Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.
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