What role does the board chair play?

What is their relationship with the executive director?

Successful, mission-driven nonprofits have two things in common: 1. a strong executive director and 2. an engaged, collaborative board chair. Without exception, the role of board chair is paramount to ensuring an active, focused and supportive board. This in turn ensures a healthy, happy nonprofit.

The board chair’s commitment to stakeholders is to operate under the guiding principle of what is best for the organization. He or she should facilitate board leadership and good governance. In this way, the chair molds the board’s culture, work and impact.

A board chair is responsible for leading the board and setting the tone for all members. He or she oversees governance and policy setting, with a focus on mission, direction, priorities and evaluation. The chair has a significant influence on how the board uses its time (and in particular is often instrumental in helping the board address fundraising goals).

In addition to overseeing board and committee meetings, supporting recruitment, and assessing the performance of board members and the executive director, the board chair works closely with the executive director. The two should meet regularly to collaboratively drive the organization’s mission forward.

The relationship between the executive director and board chair is key. Trust, respect and a willingness to rely on each other’s strengths are critical, along with a common understanding of the organization’s goals and the strategies needed to get there. Both the executive director and the chair should also have clearly defined roles and responsibilities so that everyone understands where one individual’s authority ends and the other person’s begins. This helps to determine what issues are matters for the board, and what issues lie in the domain of the organization itself.

Important ways the board chair and the executive director work together:

  • Partnering to make sure board resolutions are carried out.
  • Appointing committee chairs and recommending who will serve on committees.
  • Preparing strategic agendas for board meetings that are geared to decision-making.
  • Conducting new board member orientation.
  • Each acting as spokespersons when necessary.

Adapted in part from BoardSource and the Board Chair Handbook, Second Edition (www.boardsource.org).

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