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Executive Director, Good Shepherd Services.
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How I Became a Nonprofit Board Chair (and Lived to Tell About It)

Back by popular demand, guest blogging for us again, is Randy Hawthorne, Executive Director of Nonprofit Hub.  As someone who has chaired the board of a half dozen nonprofits, we are very grateful Randy has generously agreed to share his thoughts with our readers on being an effective board chair. Thank you Randy! 



How I Became a Nonprofit Board Chair (and Lived to Tell About It)

I remember my first time. I had been out of college for a few years and I was comfortable with the direction my career was heading. Coming from a philanthropic family, I decided that if I was going to call Lincoln home—at least for the time being—I wanted to get involved in my community.

I began to search for volunteer opportunities and stumbled upon a few organizations of interest. Just as I advise others who want to get involved, I looked to my passions to decide where to invest my time. I had dabbled in acting in my small town high school. I was scared to death before every performance, but I also remembered that it was rewarding. And a medal around my neck as a top actor in the (albeit, relatively small) state validated my need to find the spotlight again. So I auditioned at the local community playhouse and got a small part in an upcoming production. I still thank the director every time I see her.

And guess what? I was crazy nervous before every entrance. But alas.

Through that experience, I got the bug, as they say, and was “all in,” volunteering for pretty much anything I could do both on stage and behind the scenes. Management took notice, and they asked me to represent volunteers on the board of directors. Eventually I was in line to be chair.

I had little nonprofit experience, let alone an understanding of nonprofit governance. The community playhouse offered a unique opportunity for me to cut my “board chair” teeth. Many arts organizations are scrappy and the creative people aren’t necessarily the most business savvy. So I found myself in a position where I could contribute significant value despite my lack of experience.

Recently, I attended Simone Joyaux’s session about great board chairs at the AFP conference in San Antonio and was reminded of my first time—and, in fact, my many times after that. How do you develop a really great board chair? That’s the million-dollar question that has several nonprofit leaders scratching their heads.

Based on my experience—and Simone’s terrific board chairs session—here are three ways to raise an excellent board chair.

1. Choose the right person. It all starts with selecting a person who’s a good fit for your organization. If you choose someone just to fill the seat, you may end up with a bad fit or someone who just wants to fill a resume. And trust me, firing a board chair is hard—harder than firing a bad board member.

So decide what qualities you expect in a board chair. Someone who’s an expert at facilitating and guiding? That’s a good start. A good listener? Someone who’s patient? Sensible? Organized? These are all characteristics of a good board chair.

In my opinion, selecting officers for your board is as big of a deal as selecting your board members. You should put some time and thought into it, and choose the person who best fits your board chair’s job description. (By the way, you should have a board chair job description, if you don’t already.)

2. Be clear about roles and responsibilities. It’s crucial that both you and your board chair clearly understand his role on the board. Without good communication about roles and responsibilities, you’re bound to have wrong expectations and miscommunications. Guaranteed.

Here are some of the significant responsibilities that many board chairs assume:

  • Facilitates board meetings and manages conversations to ensure equal voice. Also guides the decision-making process through motions and voting.
  • Helps members distinguish between personal opinion and professional expertise.
  •  Helps with identifying committee chairs and assigning each board member to the appropriate committee.
  •  With the CEO, the board chair manages the proper relationship between the board and its committees and develops board meeting agendas. 

Whatever roles and responsibilities you want your board chair to take on, please—have that conversation. Be upfront and clear. You’ll have fewer headaches down that road if you are both on the same page to begin with.

3. Draw a distinction between the board chair and a board member. It’s important to answer the question, “How is the board chair different than any other board member?” Because honestly—there really is not much of a difference. And this is something for all board members to understand.

The board chair has no more authority than any other board member—he subscribes to the same limitations of any other board member. The board chair doesn’t recruit board members. He may help identify candidates, but that’s it.

The board chair does not fire board members. When it comes to poor performance by board members, the board chair may be aware and participate in conversations with the Governance Committee. But it’s the Governance Committee that handles the situation.

Ultimately, the board has the power. Not the board chair. Not the executive director. Not any individual. Governance is a group process, and it’s the group that decides. And this is something that is imperative for every board chair and board member to understand and accept.

I’ve since served as the chair of a half dozen organizations, but I’ll never forget my first time at that community playhouse, somehow hoping that I’d rehearsed enough to play the role well. Because honestly, there was a little acting involved as I improvised my way through the twists and turns of what it means to be a great board chair.

It’s easier now, of course, with several years experience under my belt, but every nonprofit and every board is different. Becoming a board chair is a little like taking on a new role in a show. No matter how long you’ve been doing it, it’s still both scary and exhilarating every time. And each time, you still want to hear the crowd say, “Great job.”


Randy Hawthorne is the Executive Director for Nonprofit Hub, and a Professional Certified Marketer.  Randy shares his passions of marketing and education with nonprofits to help them implement marketing and organizational leadership principles so they can grow their organizations.  Randy lends his marketing and organizational leadership expertise to a number of nonprofits in his community. Outside the office, Randy works with high school and college students and mentors young professionals to develop their leadership and entrepreneurial skills.