Report: Nonprofit Board Chairs Often Learn on the Job

Slightly more than half of respondents to the Alliance for Nonprofit Management's new board chair survey said they hadn't had any formal training before taking the role. Instead, they often learned by observing prior board chairs or consulting the CEO.

Nonprofit board chairs play a critical role governing in their organizations. So how do volunteer leaders prepare for that lofty position?

According to a new Alliance for Nonprofit Management report, “Voices of Nonprofit Board Chairs,”  many don’t prepare at all—at least not formally. Slightly more than half (51 percent) of the 635 nonprofit board chairs surveyed said that they hadn’t had any specific training before they took the helm, according to a summary published in Nonprofit Quarterly earlier this month.

Even when presented with a variety of options for how they might have prepared—for example, by attending formal workshops, using online resources, or reading books—just 56 percent said that they’d prepared for the role in some intentional way. And the role often didn’t come to them by working their way up the food chain, either: Just 13 percent said they’d been a vice chair before taking the leadership role.

Often, current and former leaders were the best resources for incoming chairs: 70 percent of respondents said it was helpful to observe previous board chairs, while 50 percent said they asked the outgoing chair for advice. More often, board chairs leaned on the CEO (58 percent) for help.

“Overall, the board chairs’ responses indicated an interest and willingness to learn,” the report stated. “They tended to look to a colleague such as a former board chair and/or the CEO within their current organization for advice, and were not aware of—or chose not to use—a variety of resources external to their nonprofits that might be helpful to their role as chair.”

Other notable findings:

Many nonprofit chairs are all about teams. More than half of leaders surveyed (56 percent) described themselves as cultivators who enabled other board members to take leadership roles. Another 25 percent focused on building widespread consensus on the board before making a decision. Just 8 percent described themselves as take-charge leaders.

They value collaboration with the CEO. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of nonprofit board chairs said they mostly or always saw their role as that of a leadership partner with the organization’s chief executive, and 58 percent said they often served as a sounding board for the CEO. It was far less likely for a board chair to serve as a mentor to the CEO, consult with the CEO on operations issues, or advocate for the CEO in front of the board.

Chairs don’t stick around forever. Most commonly, board chairs said they had been in their role either two years (26 percent) or less than a year (21 percent). Only about 15 percent of board chairs had been in their role for five years or longer. And while they may have previously served on a board, it was most likely that they’d served briefly—between one and three years (39 percent). Just 17 percent of respondents had been on a board for seven years or longer.

Want to learn more about the study? Check it out on the Alliance for Nonprofit Management website.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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