This post was adapted from Chapter 7 of The Little Book of Boards: A Board Member’s Handbook for Small (and Very Small) Nonprofits. Sign up to be the first to know when the book is available.
The role of board president or board chair will be different depending on the particular needs of your nonprofit and its staff. But there are some common themes among all of them. I’ll go over some of those common tasks soon, but first, it’s important to look at the big picture before we get into those details.
All too often, a nonprofit board gets close to the end of its fiscal year, and no one is willing to step up to become the next president. People see more work and more headaches and they think, Why would I sign up for that?
It is more work, but it doesn’t have to mean more headaches. There are a lot of good reasons you might want to think of standing for election to be board president.
A board president is in a better position to influence the direction of the nonprofit and how it lives out its mission. That isn’t to say that board presidents get their way. In fact, the job requires a lot of listening to what others want for the nonprofit. But in several small ways, the job will allow you a bigger voice about the direction of the organization, should you want it. (And if you do want it, and then get it, please don’t abuse it.)
Stepping up to this kind of leadership role in a volunteer capacity can be very fulfilling. You obviously care about the mission of the organization—otherwise you wouldn’t be on the board. As president, you can be a steward of the organization in a very active and meaningful way.
The experience is, without a doubt, rewarding. You will stretch muscles you didn’t know you had; you will build a closer relationship with the executive director and your fellow board members than you would have otherwise; and you will step down from office in a year or two knowing you have done your best to guide the ship. If you have a day job that doesn’t make you feel that you’re saving the planet and the people who live on it (or whatever your particular passion is) this is a really good opportunity to get that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
Along with the personal fulfillment comes the possibility for personal recognition among your peers and the wider community. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that the role of board president means you are the one to stand up in front of meetings, to address the crowd at the fundraising breakfast. If your business or your career would benefit from having that recognition, those side benefits of the role might have some appeal.
The caution I have for you is that sometimes the job demands being unpopular. Just as a favorite teacher is often strict, a good board president will be called upon to lay down the law from time to time. Everyone is counting on you to be the one to rap the board onthe knuckles when they need it, or to be the public face of the organization about a painful 30 percent budget cut.
Personal recognition is fine, but your desire for it shouldn’t outweigh the work that needs to be done.
If you have taken the time to read this book, you probably know more about boards and nonprofits than many currently-serving board presidents. Really. Your willingness to pick up a book to become a better board member or to get ideas for improving your board makes you stand out. Maybe you are feeling that everyone else on your board knows more than you do, but that’s certainly not true where it counts.
Yes, some members may have more history with the organization than you do. But after a year or two of serving on a board, no matter how it feels, you are probably just as ready as the current president. Don’t let fear hold you back.
If you can do it, you should consider it. Your nonprofit needs you.
So what are the common duties of a board president? We’ll go through them now.
I thought I would put the scary one first. Yes, the board president will be called upon to speak at a fundraising breakfast, at a membership meeting, upon receiving an award, or at some other public event.
One of the board presidents I served under was terrified of public speaking before he took the job, but with practice he got much better. He quoted a phrase he’d heard that I thought was apt—“it’s not about getting rid of the butterflies in your stomach, it’s about getting them to fly in formation.”
You’ll likely just have to get used to the butterflies. I speak in public all the time because of my elected position and I still get some butterflies before I go on. Practice is the only cure for fear of public speaking.
If you really want to be board president, but are truly scared of public speaking, don’t let this stand in your way. Another board member or the executive director can speak in settings when this is needed, and it won’t be an issue. If you want to lead, this does not have to be required.
I recommend that the board president have an active hand in preparing the agenda. Usually this should be done with assistance from committee chairs and the executive director. Two weeks before the board meeting, send an email asking what people have for the agenda. You might already have a good idea, but this will give you a sense of the total scope (how much is on it, whether something needs to be bumped, etc.). You should have it ready to be sent out a week before the meeting.
Don’t delegate this task to the executive director. It’s the board’s meeting, not the director’s.
As board president, you will generally be expected to lead the meeting. This means the decision to start the meeting on time is up to you, and ending it at a reasonable time is likely within your power, too. This might take a firm hand at first, but then it should get easier.
During the board meeting itself, you are the most likely person to keep the meeting on track. If someone has gone off-topic or goes over their allotted time, you’re the one who can jump in without ruffling too many feathers.
It’s a tricky balance of calling board members back to the topic or cutting them off—you don’t want to slap someone down in front of their fellow board members, but you also need to establish that things need to stay on topic.
If someone is running long, jump in when they take a breath with, “I really hate to cut you off, Bob, but we’re starting to sneak into the time allotted for strategic planning. Do you need a vote from the board tonight or can we pick this back up at the next meeting?”
If someone is off-topic, again you’re going to have to jump in. “Dennis, I need to jump in real quick. I agree, those are good questions we’d like to know about our demographics, but I want to make sure we don’t get too far off from the agenda item on the table. Alison, as the marketing committee chair, can you take up the question of demographics at a future committee meeting and go through what we know and what we don’t?”
(Board presidents should often refer ideas to committees and let the collective wisdom of the group run with an idea. In the case of a bad idea, the committee can find the kernel that does work or gently let the board member down. For the board president this relieves the burden of being a focal point for every board member’s pet ideas or suggestions. By referring it to a committee, other board members can jointly share the responsibility of hearing out ideas.)
Maybe the idea of interrupting someone feels rude to you. I get that. But you are the person that people are looking to for guidance when someone needs to be interrupted (and yes, sometimes people do need to be interrupted). Think of yourself as the voice of what everyone else is thinking. You can also think about it this way: your title as board president is a sort of armor that allows you to jump in where otherwise it might be considered rude. As long as you do so respectfully, people will understand that you are trying to keep the meeting on track, simply because of your title.
As with all possible jobs of the board president, you don’t have to do them all. If you really don’t think you can jump in and cut someone off in mid-speech, that’s OK. But you should recognize that someone needs that job. You could ask the board secretary to do it, and then tell the board that the secretary will be keeping an eye on time and jumping in if needed. (Telling the board is important, because it means that they are expecting it and the “armor” of the title is transferring to the secretary.)
Here’s another idea: empower other board members. Buy two of those really big foam hands that people take to football games and give them to two of your quieter board members. Tell the board that these two have the task of keeping the board on topic. Whenever someone delves too far off-topic, or does for too long, they wave the bright foam hand.
The silliness of it, and the fact that it’s a visual reminder and not someone jumping in and interrupting the speaker, means this can get the meeting back on track without making the speaker feel too bad.
The job of leading the meetings is most important during times of real debate and difference of opinion on the board. As a board member, you get to have an opinion and a vote, of course. But you are also the one who needs to make sure the debate is productive, and doesn’t just veer into chaos.
For example, if during an argument, two people try to talk at the same time, you can say, “Karen, then Jerry next.” With just that, you’ve established that you’re moderating. Almost certainly, the next person who wants to talk will catch your eye and lift a hand. You just have to nod at them, and then when Jerry’s done you say, “Dennis, you had something you wanted to add?” If someone tries to supersede Dennis, you do the same thing as you did with Karen and Jerry—bump them. “Sorry, Alison, Dennis was next. Then you.” This keeps any one or two people from monopolizing the discussion too much.
You also have an opportunity—if not the duty—to call on someone who hasn’t said anything. “Barb, we haven’t heard from you. What’s your take?” This small offering is a good way to make sure that opposite views are being aired. If Barb declines, that’s fine. But the offer to a silent board member—especially if her body language is tense or shows disagreement—should be made when the discussion is important.
One of the most important jobs of the board president is listening to other board members.
Get to know them as people. Ask them why they wanted to be on the board and where they’d like to see the nonprofit in five years. Ask them how they think things have been going, and if they have any suggestions for things they’d like to see changed on the board. If they have a concern, tell them they should reach out to you. It’s important to have a good sense of where the board is, especially when there are big decisions in front of the board.
It’s important, too, to remember that listening to what board members says doesn’t necessarily mean acting on everything they say. That would make you a reactionary president, pulled in all directions. Pay attention to your gut—is what the board member is asking for a good idea? Do you think the idea is a good one? Is it relatively painless, even if you don’t agree?
Also, pay attention especially when you hear the same thing from more than one person. Maybe someone is a little upset about a behavior of the executive director. That doesn’t mean you need to go off trying to correct it. But if you hear of someone else concerned, it’s time to start paying closer attention. Either someone on the board is trying to stir the pot and get people on their side, or the behavior of the executive director might need to be corrected. Good relationships with board members will mean that these discussions won’t blindside you too often.
As with many jobs of the board president, listening to board members can be a delicate balance. You want them to feel heard, but you don’t want—and can’t afford—to spend hours and hours of your time in one-on-one coffee meetings or on endless phone calls with the board. All board presidents struggle with this balance.
You should be willing to takes calls and coffee meetings with your fellow board members, but I would suggest that these take place on your terms. If evenings are hard for you to spend an hour on the phone because you want to spend time with your family, then simply don’t do it. Suggest talking during the day or early morning. If coffee meetings are hard for you to make time for because of the time to travel to the coffee shop, then suggest in-person meetings at your office or home. Whatever it is, make it work for yourschedule. It’s easy to think like an employee and want to say yes as often as you can to your board members. But you represent board members and should lead them. You don’t work for them. Make time for them in the way that’s easiest for you.
That said, the old 80/20 rule probably applies here. 80 percent of the calls and requests on your time are going to come from 20 percent of your board. Many board members simply won’t think to call the board president about an issue and will deal with something on their own, through the committee process, or just let it go. But for some board members, calling the board president will be their first response.
Sometimes this can be a good thing—you don’t want someone causing a ruckus or getting out way ahead of the board. But there just aren’t many things that board members should be doing on their own that would allow them to get way ahead of the board as a whole.
In my experience, someone who asks for more and more of the Board President’s time is probably either venting about a personality conflict or trying to do an end-run around a committee’s work to get their own way. Common topics for calls might be: the executive director isn’t listening to my ideas; I have a great marketing strategy that should be implemented immediately but the committee said no; I think we’re making a big mistake with the location for this year’s breakfast; I’m upset that no one is signing up to be table captains; Jerry was rude to me…
These kinds of repeated calls from a board member can be difficult and can end up making a lot of work for everyone—the board president, and all the people (staff and other board members) whom the board president is calling upon to deal with the persistent caller.
It’s up to you to protect your own time and keep your focus on the entire board, not just on dealing with one or two very vocal members.
The important thing to remember is that (most of the time) it is not up to you to solve the problems of every board member. Your position does not make you a parent of fourteen toddlers who need you to intercede on their behalf all the time. They are all adults and can work things out.
Dealing with board members who are trying to monopolize your time is hard. The easiest way to handle them is to divert them back into the board and committee structure:
The executive director isn’t listening to my ideas.
I have a great marketing strategy that should be implemented immediately but the committee said no.
I think we’re making a big mistake with the location for this year’s breakfast.
I’m upset that board members aren’t signing up to be table captains for the fundraising breakfast.
Jerry was rude to me.
If someone is monopolizing your time with repeated calls, emails, and questions, this is when a strong board and committee structure will reveal itself as an asset.
Here’s what happens when you don’t have that structure to rely on: the board president gets off the phone after an hour-long call with the disgruntled board member. He emails a committee chair or the executive director, relaying the frustration of that board member. Accommodations are suggested. Return calls are made. Things are changed to “fix” the situation.
In all, everyone has a lot of extra communication and extra work to try to make the upset board member happy. Often this is done entirely behind the scenes, too. So decisions are made to please a board member that others aren’t even aware of (and might be against, if they were privy to the conversation).
It’s the kind of office politics that people hate at work—they shouldn’t need to go through it in their volunteer time as well.
There are many reasons that some board members choose to go around the regular lines of committee work. It could be that some board members are shy and insecure in a group; it could be that they want to get their way no matter what it takes; it could be that the proper channels were never explained to them (that one’s on you); or it could be that they don’t know any different way of behaving.
Whatever the reason, look at the result: A single board member got you, the board president, (and possibly additional volunteers and staff) to respond to their frustration or complaint without having to advocate for that concern or frustration in an open session of the board or committee.
That grants a single board member enormous power. Why would they go through the messy, but important, work of the board and committee structure if they can get their way by working around it?
Some board members might not get the hint when you advise them to use the board structure, and you may need to be more direct about your needs and expectations. Here are some ideas:
Many of these statements, while polite, might earn you a retort along the lines of—“But isn’t taking care of this situation for me part of your job?”
Again, to be clear, it’s not. You should not be spending hours and hours on the phone or in meetings because a single board member wants you to do so. A possible response:
“I don’t think it is, but I guess we have different ideas on what the role of the board president is. Why don’t I add it to the agenda at the end of the next board meeting and we’ll see if I’m out of step with others on the board, too. Maybe we can all reach a consensus together.”
This models an important behavior to your whole board: important topics should not be discussed only in the shadows.
Another job of the board president is having hard—but necessary—conversations with board members. This could be about their poor attendance at meetings, their treatment of a staff member or fellow board member, their lack of giving, or a host of other topics. You’re probably not going to like it, but the good news is, you probably don’t have to do it that often.
If you have never been in a position in which you need to have a “corrective” conversation, here are a couple of tips that will help you get through it:
The relationship with your executive director should be strong. I like to think of it as the hinge on which the rest of the nonprofit functions. The two of you should have each other’s backs. That doesn’t mean you should have to agree on everything, but you should sort things out together, and (generally) act as a team.
In cases of real disagreement, there should be mutual respect and neither side should fight dirty while trying to advocate for their position. Along those lines, I would say that neither the board president nor the executive director should surprise the other in a meeting if they can possibly help it.
As an executive director, I generally tried to have weekly or twice-monthly meetings with my board president either over breakfast or coffee, or at the president’s office. Sometimes there wasn’t much to talk about, but it was good to have a strong foundation for our working relationship.
Despite the importance I place on this relationship and the need to build camaraderie, the board president is still the closest thing to a direct supervisor that the executive director has. That means that at times, the relationship is very much a supervisor/employee relationship.
Except… it’s not. It’s a unique dynamic: The supervisor doesn’t work on site with the employee; the employee is paid, but the supervisor is not; the supervisor is representing not only their own opinion, but what they hear from other board members; and finally—the employee knows that if they wait a year or so, they’ll probably get a new supervisor.
It’s an unusual relationship in the employment world.
The executive director and board president should start their time together with a clear understanding of expectations and communication styles. But at some point, the president may have to have a hard conversation. Maybe requesting a behavior to be changed. Or directing, on behalf of the board, that a certain course be followed over the executive director’s wishes. These can be hard conversations. But it’s the job of the board president to have them. The same advice presented earlier on having hard conversations with board members applies to having them with the executive director as well.
A board president is often useful to patch up relationships the organization has with customers, vendors, or partner organizations. As an executive director, I can remember several times when someone was upset at either me personally or the organization as a whole. While I often could defuse the situation, I called in the board president when I couldn’t.
Just talking to the highest possible “authority,” and having their problem heard and understood is often all someone needs. It may be enough to simply promise that you’ll have a conversation with your executive director about the matter. Alternatively, a board president can offer a year’s extension of their membership, a refund, or some other small token of apology that might not have been accepted coming from the executive director.
One thing to keep in mind: if someone cares enough to complain all the way up the line to the board president, they are likely a strong supporter of your organization (when they’re not upset at you, that is). Do spend the time to try to make things right. You may find later that you’re glad you did.
Both boards that I’ve worked for have had a threshold: checks above a certain amount need two signatures. This prevents the executive director from writing a fantastically large check to herself and running off to Venezuela.
In these cases, one board member, and sometimes two, will be asked to be registered with the bank as a signer on checks. I recommend the president and another officer—maybe the secretary or the president-elect. Ideally, it shouldn’t be the treasurer. Some nonprofits give the treasurer signing power because it has to do with money—“treasurers deal with the money, so treasurers should sign the checks.” And, yet, it’s exactly becausethey are in charge of the books and presenting the information to the board that treasurers shouldn’t be able to sign checks.
A board president should be the first choice to be a check signer. After all, the executive director ideally will be meeting with the board president anyway. And signing checks can be a good way for a board president to better understand the business of the organization.
You probably have met board volunteers—often with the title of board president—who by sheer force of will carry an organization forward and reach new heights the nonprofit wouldn’t have otherwise.
A nonprofit won’t last long without passionate people who are willing to pitch in when needed. But you should not be the only one doing the work. The danger of taking too much on yourself is that everyone else will let you do it. And when it comes time for your term to end, guess what? No one wants your job! Because they all think they have to do everything you did.
If you want to serve as board president for a year, maybe two, you need to make sure that you haven’t made the job look so unpalatable that no one wants it when you’re done. Spread the work around! If you’re feeling overwhelmed, email some of your key board members (other executive committee members or committee chairs) and ask them to manage a task.
Let board members step up without asking. Give them time and space to identify a problem themselves before you jump in to fix it. Maybe more tasks would get done if you did everything yourself. But not everyone is a superhero like you. You will find getting everyone working together is more effective over the long run than taking it all on yourself. Especially when it’s time to step down.
Also, and this is especially important, don’t ask for the board’s sympathy or drop hints about how hard you’re working. It’s often ingrained in us at work to toot our own horns about the extra hours we put in, but here it can backfire. “I can’t even guess how many hours I spent on this, or long nights on the phone I had talking about this, but now that this new strategic plan is done, I think the hard work has really paid off.”
Thanks for putting in the time! But no one else is going to want your position if it means countless long nights on the phone. You just made it harder for yourself to step down. Be conscious about how you communicate about your own work to the board.
It’s not out of line for a board president to take another board member out for coffee and suggest the person consider standing for nomination to be the next board president. In fact, something like this generally should happen. The governance or nominations committee can lead the process of identifying possible good candidates, but at some point someone is going to have to sit down and ask another board member to consider it.
The best someone to do that is probably you. Why? Because the sitting board president can answer better than anyone else what the job requires. It’s easy for a board member who has never served as a board president to nominate someone else for the job. But the sitting board president is going to be able to present a stronger case to the potential nominee.
You still want to have an open call for nominations. If multiple board members are nominated (or nominate themselves), you can conduct your election with a secret ballot vote. But most likely, you’ll be faced with the problem of finding a candidate rather than having too many. A board president who works in advance to find a good candidate will not feel pressure to “stay on one more year” because no one else is stepping up.
Being board chair doesn’t mean you get your way all the time. Let’s say you want to be board president because you want to push your organization in a particular direction. If you start pushing too hard, you’re going to find that either of two things happen. One—you get immediate resistance from board members and staff. Or two—you encounter not resistance exactly, but quiet. No one wants to stand up to argue because they can’t match the strength with which you’re pushing. So they stay quiet, stop coming to meetings, and maybe just slip away.
Neither are good outcomes.
You will get your organization a lot further in the direction you want to go if you adjust both your expectations and your methods.
Instead of looking at achieving your goal as one big Herculean effort, a successful board president will probably find that their legacy is in several thousand fingerprints that, combined, nudged the nonprofit forward. The tone you set at meetings; the culture and policies you leave behind; the way you treat members who disagree with you; how you approach conflict; how well you listen; the style with which you lead a meeting… Getting those things right will have a bigger impact on the direction the nonprofit goes than almost anything else you do.
From my own experience, I can share a short anecdote here. When I became president of the board of Tacoma360, I didn’t know that during that year we would end up merging with another nonprofit come December. I didn’t come to the job with any strong personal priorities, which was good. Because if I’d had them, I would have had to let them go very quickly. The alternative would have been wasting time fighting against the direction we needed to be going because I had a particular idea in mind of what my “legacy” should be.
The legacy I left was in the successful merger (with grant funding transferred over).
But let’s not get too fixated on this idea of “legacy.”
Not everyone gets to have one. The great presidents of the United States—Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt—got to leave immense legacies. But did Millard Fillmore? Did Benjamin Harrison?
Often, keeping the ship from falling off course during your watch is legacy enough.
If you found this post helpful, please share it with other nonprofit board presidents–or those thinking about becoming board president! We need more board presidents who are ready to step into this role! It doesn’t have to be as hard as you fear.
I would also encourage you to check out my forthcoming book, The Little Book of Boards: A Board Member’s Handbook for Small (and Very Small) Nonprofits. It covers things like the above post (which was adapted from a chapter in the book) but for the entire board. It’s geared toward a new member. If your would like your new (and maybe current) board members to have a better idea of their responsibilities explained in a style similar to the above, it’s worth checking out!