January 30, 2023

How to Collaborate Effectively with Your Board Chair

Your relationships with your board chair can be better—much better.

Why it Matters:

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.**

1. Engage Regularly

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:

  • How often? The schedule depends on your chair’s choice and what’s up. You can talk during your chair’s commute. Meet on-site or share a weekly breakfast. Or you call when you have two or three issues.
  • Plan your talks. Decide what you need. Is it board action to keep your chair “in the loop,” to explore an idea, or something else? 
  • Begin with the result you seek, then share the issue.
  • Over time, shrink meetings. New chair sessions take longer. You’ve got the agenda and creating your process to cover. After three months, try 30-minute sessions, and after six, 20.
  • Don’t make it all about work. Get to know each other offline—ideally before the term starts.

💡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

2. Set Ground Rules

When a new chair begins, a backlog of work waits. So it’s easy to neglect ground rules. Ground rules set expectations and 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:

  • Agree not to surprise each other publicly.
  • Create job descriptions with yearly goals—for both positions.
  • Decide how you will deal with sticky issues before you go to the board.
  • The chair takes on board accountability because it’s tricky for you to do this since you report to the board.
  • Update your ground rules quarterly. Explore what could be better.

💡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

3. Plan Whose Next

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.

Bottom Line

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

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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