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October 25, 2020
Choosing Your Next Board Chair
By Amy Cahners and Susan Donahue

Amy Cahners and Susan Donahue
Amy Cahners, left, and Susan Donahue
The position of board chair is arguably one of the most important roles in determining the success of a nonprofit organization, yet, in many instances, boards do not take sufficient time and care when choosing their next leader.

To some extent this may be attributed to a lack of clarity by the board about what skills are needed in the leadership role but, more often than not, we see a lack of rigor applied to the selection process in the first place. The steps to make this an intentional process with a successful outcome are quite straightforward.

Establish a Process
Too often we see boards default to the individual who either expresses an interest or is “gently” coerced to serve as board chair, rather than making a dedicated effort to find the right person. When this happens, an organization may find themselves in one or more of these unfortunate situations. You may find yourself with a board chair who:
  • Doesn’t have the time, or devote the time, to do the job properly
  • Takes a hands-off approach to managing the board; neglecting to ensure committee work and assignments are completed, avoiding decision-making or difficult issues
Or on the other hand, you may have a board chair who:
  • Micro-manages the board, the organization, or both
  • Promotes his/her personal agenda at the expense of the board and the organization
  • Has a poor working relationship with the Executive Director; overstepping the boundaries between board and staff roles, not recognizing that relationship needs to be a true partnership
Establishing a thoughtful, transparent, and equitable process will ensure you select the best possible leader for the board. The process includes:
  • Selecting a nominating committee
  • Creating a job description clearly outlining the major responsibilities and expectations of the board chair
  • Determining the key skills and traits needed in the next board leader
  • Identifying potential candidates
  • Evaluating all candidates against the key criteria
  • Developing a slate of nominee(s)
  • Conducting elections
Make Recruitment a Priority
Developing board leaders begins when you initially recruit individuals to serve on the board. Every new addition to the board roster should be interviewed with an eye to whether this candidate may have potential to lead. Not every board member will be in line for the position of board chair but, as a rule of thumb, at any point in time, it’s good to have three to five people sitting at the table who have the potential to lead the board.

Groom and Grow Candidates
Once you have potential leaders identified, give them the opportunity to grow into leadership roles. Encourage them to assume different roles on the board; chair a committee, lead the capital campaign, manage an event or participate in a search for the next chair or executive director, as examples. As you groom future leaders, the board has an opportunity to assess leadership potential and can hone in on the individuals who are best suited to serve as a board chair.

Once the board is comfortable they have the right person in place, don’t assume that, even with the prior experience on the board, the new board chair knows how to do the job. Governing a nonprofit is a unique undertaking and most of us do not come to the job with all the knowledge and skills to do the job well. The good news is there are many resources available to educate the new chair about nonprofit board management and governance and how to partner effectively with the executive director.

A final word of caution when considering the leadership role of any nonprofit board: When boards fail to apply a thoughtful process to the selection of a board chair and the wrong person is put into the role, the positive momentum of the organization can quickly unravel. Years of work in growing a strong board and establishing effective infrastructure can disappear in the span of a few meetings. So establish a process, take the time to recruit, develop your future leaders and we’re confident you’ll find the next outstanding board chair for your nonprofit organization.

Amy Cahners and Susan Donahue are Principals at Cahners & Donahue Associates LLC, a management consulting firm that is dedicated to helping nonprofit boards work more effectively. You can contact them at or call 781.237.3566.
April 2015
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