How are boards evolving?

What role does the board chair play in support of the executive director?

What about succession planning?

As our economy changes along with our social landscape, the challenges facing nonprofits are getting bigger. As a result, nonprofit boards are, by necessity, becoming more diverse, strategic and engaged.

In the past, board responsibilities were viewed as volunteer work and not held to the same standards as for-profit boards. For this reason, members often held more passive roles, tasked with setting policy, receiving reports and approving management’s plans and strategies. To be effective today, board members must take their roles and responsibilities very seriously, as they work hand in hand with the executive director to guide policy, connect with the community, provide financial and strategic support, implement programs and meet goals and objectives.

Today’s board does work that matters:

  1. It concerns itself with crucial “do or die” issues central to the institution’s success. It works with management to set and implement policy and agendas and solve problems together.
  2. It is goal driven, defining clear measures of success. It seeks results that are linked to defined timetables.
  3. Its structure and the actions of members are driven by strategic priorities and circumstance. Emphasis is on flexibility, participation and action.
  4. It requires the engagement of the organizations’ internal and external constituencies. It recruits team members with an eye to collective capabilities and a commitment to support. Adapted from the Harvard Business Review, Sept. – Oct. 96.

Today’s board chair is committed to operating under the guiding principle of what’s best for the organization. He or she facilitates board leadership and good governance. In this way, the chair molds the board’s culture, work and impact.

For this reason, the relationship between the board chair and the executive director is critical, as the two – collaboratively – drive the organization’s mission forward. Here, trust is key. Communication should be open and candid, and each should rely on the other’s strengths in pursuit of their common goal. 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 matter for the board, and what issues lie in the domain of the organization itself. Adapted in part from BoardSource and the Board Chair Handbook, Second Edition (

Succession planning is another leadership area in which the board should be very involved. Often, nonprofits will operate without a succession plan, expecting to put one in place if the executive director announces his or her departure. But what happens if that departure is unexpected? Have others been groomed for leadership roles? Does the executive director hold critical relationships that couldn’t be quickly taken over by someone else? Will the board know what actions to take when the time comes? It’s also worth noting that there are often other management, staff or board positions that should be considered in a succession plan.

In the Free Management Library (, HR expert Sheri Mazurek offers the following tips for succession planning:

  • Do not wait until the employee will be leaving.
  • Focus on policies, procedures and practices, not on personalities.
  • Succession planning is a responsibility of the management, not just the employee.
  • Succession planning should be in accordance with up-to-date personnel policies.

To learn more about board leadership read Boards & Governance.

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