January 29, 2015

Role of the nonprofit board chair: Leadership, accountability


Special to Philanthropy Journal 


@ Shutterstock 

You have just accepted the appointment to serve as chair of the board of the nonprofit you love. This is a happy moment. You are filled with excitement, ideas and hopefully ... fear. Yes, fear!

Why hopefully? Board service is a leadership function - in the nonprofit world the buck stops with the chair of the board. If the organization thrives during your tenure or falls short, you are accountable. And to whom? In the for-profit world, board accountability is to the owners of the organization; no one owns the nonprofit.

In the nonprofit scenario, the word "stakeholders" carries real heft. And you have several stakeholder groups that are aligned in their needs and expectations in a perfect world. Let's talk real world for a moment.

We'll start with the funders. We must honor their investments by doing what we say we are going to do with their investment in us. This means spending the money on what we say we are going to spend it on, measuring the impact or outcomes derived from that expenditure and, sometimes, giving the money back if we cannot fulfill that promise.

Those seem like simple things to do, but non-alignment can quickly rear its ugly head. What if we failed to obtain a percentage for overhead costs and our general funding is falling short? What if we do not achieve the outcomes expected?

Funders are becoming more focused on the impact their giving is achieving and demanding transparency from the organizations they are supporting. As a new chair, determining how the organization is operating in this area should be a top priority.

The obvious stakeholder group is the people or cause you are serving. This again goes to outcomes and impact. Can you really measure these results being obtained by your organization? Are you? What does the data reveal? Has the mission been sacrificed for fundraising? Is the mission still relevant? These are all questions for you and your board to ask and have answered by the nonprofit leadership team.

The third stakeholder group is the management team and staff of your organization. This dynamic is critical to everyone's success and is the most complex relationship of all, providing interesting leadership questions.

The chair/president dual leadership relationship is critically important and filled with potential challenges. Hopefully, as chair, you have several years of prior board service with this nonprofit and have developed a good working relationship with the president of the organization. Whatever your history is with this individual, when you move into the chairperson role the relationship will shift.

(In future articles we will discuss board development succession planning. For now, we will assume that your position as chair is a result of a robust board development function.)

You both have leadership responsibilities: As chair, you are leading the board, and as president, she/he is leading the staff. In a larger nonprofit where the board is providing a pure governance function, these lines of differentiation are clear.

In many nonprofits, the board members are also providing support almost as an extension of staff. This gray area is where magic can happen and where problems can arise.

In either scenario, the relationship should be a collaborative one where constructive feedback between the two leaders can occur freely and comfortably. Think in terms of a co-mentoring liaison. Typically, you will have differing strengths and ones that are complementary. This relationship will potentially have some natural tension. Indeed, it could be argued that if there is no tension, then someone is not doing their job!

At the beginning of the relationship, take the time to clarify goals and expectations of each and establish the ground rules for how you will work together and what boundaries you will draw. Trust in each other is the key to success. In this case, trust that you have the same vision for the organization and a behavior history that tells you each person will do what they say they will do.

You and other board members will also need to be aware of how you interact with staff. What will you do when the staff complains to you or other board members about their leader? This does happen and often for good reasons. Having a policy to guide both staff and the board is this situation will help everyone navigate during a time of ineffective leadership.

The goal of this article is to give you some ideas of how to get your new role as chairperson off to a great start. You will be serving many different constituents as the leader of this organization. Beginning your role with a clear plan for how you will address these exciting dynamics will serve you and your organization well. Good luck!

Patti Gillenwater is CEO of Elinvar. A Philanthropy Journal Sponsor, Elinvar is a retained search and leadership development firm that specializes in serving mission driven organizations in North Carolina.

Comment on this article


The article raises fundamental issues in terms of the relationship between CEO and the board chair. Trust and clarity of roles of the two are key ingrediants for a successful organization. It must be emphasized that both must be willing to built a collaborative relationship if success is to be achieved.

Just picked up a promising book on this same topic, "The Nonprofit Board Answer Book, A Practical Guide for Board Members and Chief Executives", third edition, by Boardsource


Very thoughtful article; leadership is a key to success.

Thank you,

Mary Anne

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