Becoming a Sensitive Board Chair

By Sherwin Pomerantz

Having been the chairperson of some Jewish community organization non-stop for the last 40 years the one fault that I find in most people who occupy that position is a lack of understanding of the basics of board leadership that differentiate the good lay leader from the outstanding lay leader. Particularly in today’s climate, as younger people come on to boards having matured in the era of Twitter and Facebook, there are discernible gaps in style that, while perhaps more widely known years ago, clearly now need to be mentioned in some detail. Four examples follow.

Validating Others

Human beings seem to want just one thing in life above all others, and that is to be validated. We validate each other by being active listeners, by responding to every communication whether it is a telephone message, email, or even snail mail. Not responding is tantamount to saying that the people in contact with you are not important or, even worse, that your time is more valuable than theirs. Either way the lack of timely response is invalidating and, at the end of the day, demeans both the sender and the receiver.

Saying Thank You

It is amazing to me how we have lost the art of saying thank you. Personally, I never go to a meeting that I do not follow up the same day with an e mail thanking the person for taking the time to meet and expressing my appreciation for their fitting me into their day. Not only is the thank you important but the timeliness of it is even more important. Last year I was at a conference in Washington and met a lot of people the first day. That evening every one of them got an e mail from me and the next day I ran into one of the people in the hallway of the conference venue. She said she was amazed to get a note from me the night before and I asked, “doesn’t everyone do that?”

Going the Extra Mile

One of my current positions is as Chair of a 150 family congregation in Jerusalem. As a matter of policy I make it my business to attend every funeral of a member, or a relative of a member if I am aware of the date and time. In Israel that is a particular challenge as, certainly in Jerusalem, where burials take place the day of the death, timing is a challenge as I am also engaged full time professionally. It is incredible to me how much people appreciate that and just as incredible how many of my fellow board members do not see this as their obligation. Going the extra mile for someone in their time of need always comes back in spades.

Being Transparent

The biggest challenge for board chairs is, of course, the challenge of transparency. Board members who care are always concerned that decisions are being taken without their knowledge or permission, that a small group of select people are really “running the show,” or that the organization only wants them as board members for their fundraising capabilities. A bi-weekly newsletter from the chairperson to the board highlighting the events of the two weeks in question will do much to convey the idea to the board members that they are not out of the loop and that, once again, their presence on the board is being validated (that word again).

At the end of the day those of us who serve as chairpersons of organizations take on a responsibility that carries with it the need to both represent the nonprofit well and make the volunteers and professionals feel that their efforts are both worthwhile and recognized. A board chair who understands this and projects a caring and open image will find the work more rewarding while concomitantly seeing the organization thrive.

Sherwin Pomerantz has live in Jerusalem 33 years and is Chairperson of the Israel Board of Directors of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, President of Kehillat Ohel Nechama, Chairperson of the American State Offices Association in Israel and CEO of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based business development consultancy. Originally from Chicago he is a former President of the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago, Regional President of the United Synagogue of America and Chairperson of its Council of Regional Presidents.