What Successful Nonprofit Board Presidents Wish They Knew Before Their Terms

By Kathy Cohen, PhD and Nanette R. Fridman, MPP, JD

There is no shortage of advice on how to lead a nonprofit board. We have all heard that nonprofit board chairs should get to know their trustees, be ambassadors and advocates for the organization, and develop strong relationships with the executive director. This is very good advice and frankly, first time nonprofit board chairs are often well aware of these useful tips long before their tenures begin.

But what do successful nonprofit board chairs tell us they wish they had known before they began their service? Successful board chairs focus on leveraging their best skills and building a team around them, bringing their curiosity and eye towards continuous improvement to their roles, setting realistic goals, focusing on alignment, investing in relationships with their other board members and developing a thick skin.

That is certainly much easier said than done. Coaching and mentoring for board chairs can make the difference between good intentions and great outcomes. Below are the top issues that we have seen many of our nonprofit board chairs learn to manage successfully in our coaching practices.

Bring Your Skills to the Game

Many board chairs have told us they felt the pressure to be knowledgeable about every aspect of the organization and board. Furthermore, they were concerned they didn’t have the skill set necessary to chair the board. As incoming board chairs compare themselves to their predecessors, they frequently recognize their own strengths, but they also become painfully aware of their own shortcomings. It is common to hear “I can’t fundraise nearly as well as the last president” or “I don’t have the legal or finance background to navigate the board through complex sustainability issues.”

Yet, after leading their boards for only a few months, board chairs told us they realized they were asked to chair their boards for the skill sets they already possessed. In short order, they understood something they already knew: strong boards are comprised of individuals who bring different skill sets to the table and who are able to work together to meet the various needs of the board. When these board chairs focused on capitalizing on their own strengths and building a team that allowed other trustees to contribute their own unique skill sets, they were able to help the board propel the organization forward in significant ways.

Lesson Learned: As an incoming board chair, it is essential that you take a good hard look at your strengths and weaknesses, and then… take a deep breath and embrace your whole self. Are you a great fundraiser but couldn’t forecast a budget if your life depended on it? Assess your skill set with as much accuracy as possible and then figure out who on your board or within your organization can fill in the gaps. A great way to begin this self-assessment is to talk with your board’s committee on trustees (sometimes called a governance or leadership development committee). The chair of that committee likely has a very good sense of your qualifications as well as areas where you could benefit from more support.

Lead Through Learning

Being a nonprofit board chair is frequently a passion project, not your day job. Nonprofit board chairs bring expertise and experience with them, but they often know very little about the day to day operations of the organization or how they can best apply their expertise to help the organization. What board chairs told us they learned very quickly was that the best way to lead was not through providing answers to the board or organization but through asking the right questions to move the organization forward. Through questioning, they were able to help trustees and employees look at issues through a different lens, imagine what a stronger version of the organization could look like in the future, and make space for creative thinking. Framing their work through asking questions allowed board chairs to understand their organizations better and help the trustees and staff engage in a collaborative process of thought partnership that yielded best results.

Lesson learned: The best organizations are in perpetual beta, working toward their next greatest iteration. They do not rest on proven methods or accomplishments already achieved but are constantly trying to innovate and improve. When board chairs lead through learning, not only are they more likely to achieve their goals, they model best practices for continually making progress for the entire organization.

Set Realistic Goals

If a new chair has been on the board or involved with an organization for a long time before becoming chair, she often will come into the position with a long list of items that she believes needs to be addressed. The topics or tasks may cover the gamut from governance to management to development to programmatic recommendations to marketing and communications.

Board chairs quickly discover that they have to prioritize their goals and sequence them. Running the board meetings, supporting the executive, managing the board’s committees, and serving as lead ambassador, advocate and fundraiser are already a full load. Moreover, most “good ideas” that the board chair come in with have staff and volunteer implications and create more work for some. As always, an organization’s capacity and resources are limited.

Lesson Learned: Board chairs who are the most successful and consequently are the most satisfied with their service are the ones who pick their top three goals for their term, state their priorities and confidently say “no” to distractions.

Alignment is a Fulltime Job

Board chairs connect the board and the professional staff and often are the person most visible to donors and members or end-users. Part of their job is to hear and know of several different constituencies’ thoughts about and involvement with the organization. Board chairs have the advantage of seeing how all of the different pieces fit together and are often privy to information that gives them a unique perspective. Integrating all of that information and sharing it appropriately with the executive director, board of trustees, donors and other key stakeholders are critical to ensuring that the organization stays on track.

Lesson Learned: As one board chair told us, she felt like a conductor of an orchestra when it all worked. What she understood was that board chairs need to collect various pieces of information and keep all the stakeholders aligned to the organization’s strategic direction, priorities and values. This requires managing a tricky balance of allowing stakeholders the freedom to pursue their roles with autonomy and expertise while simultaneously ensuring they do not overstep their boundaries or grow frustrated that their ideas cannot be implemented as they do not have a complete understanding of the organization like the board chair and executive director do.

Feelings Matter

This is perhaps the biggest surprise to incoming nonprofit board chairs. No one serves on a nonprofit board for financial gain. In fact, your trustees are likely donating their money to the organization for which they have the pleasure of serving on the board. The team you are working with is almost certainly serving for more of an emotional payoff than a financial one. Their values and feelings and their reasons for serving on the board are likely to be as varied as the number of people you work with on the board. The bottom line is everyone’s feelings matter… yours, your trustees’, and your executive director and his or her employees’.

Board chairs have told us that the amount of time they have spent managing trustees’ feelings has surprised them. The trick for any effective board chair is to capitalize on positive feelings for the organization and channel any negative feelings into positive work for the organization. Incoming board chairs should be mindful that trustees who feel passionately about the organization can be the organization’s best ambassadors when their passion is channeled constructively.

The best way to turn passion into growth for an organization is to get to know your trustees and executive director well. Take the time to have one on one meetings with them. Ask them what makes them feel connected to the organization and if anything makes them feel alienated from it. Explore what they see as potential risks to the organization and the dreams they have for the organization’s growth. Inquire if they feel well utilized or if there are other ways they could help the organization better.

Lesson learned: These meetings allow board chairs to build trust and relationships with every member of the team. A board chair never wants his or her first one on one conversation with a trustee to occur when the trustee has a complaint or when a board chair needs to ask for a favor. This is also another opportunity for board chairs to lead through learning. Board chairs will not only get to know the people they are working with better, but they will also get to know the board’s and organization’s strengths and weaknesses better. Finally, these one on one conversations will help you understand what motivates your trustees and executive director. This will allow you direct their passions as constructively as possible as well as make everyone’s work feel more rewarding.

Not Everyone Is Going to Be Happy

Part of any leadership role is the truism that you can’t make everyone happy. Board chairs certainly learn this during their terms. Going into the role, it is healthy for people to understand that because people are passionate about organizations and bring strong beliefs and feelings, the expectation can’t be to please everyone.

Even with their team in place, clear priorities, and a focus on continual learning, board chairs can find themselves apologizing frequently and listening to concerns and criticism that doesn’t always feel constructive. Leaders often comment on the need to remind board members of their roles and the difference between management and governance. This can be draining and demoralizing.

One board chair shared that he tried to learn from each person’s feedback and apply the warranted information but had to let a lot “roll off his back” to feel motivated to stay in the job. The feeling that you are never doing enough or that you are working so hard and are constantly met with negative feedback is something we hear often from clients.

Lesson learned: Board chairs need to practice good self-care during their terms. You need to savor your wins and successes and understand that with them come some misses and many opinions. This is normal and par for the course. You will not please everyone so don’t try!

Board chairs who are just starting out will be well served to take these lessons to heart and to find themselves a mentor or coach inside or outside their organization. Being a leader can be challenging, but the vast majority of our clients report overall positive and enriching experiences. What do you wish you knew before your term?

Kathy Cohen, PhD, is a Clinical Psychologist and experienced nonprofit board president who provides governance and development consulting and coaching for nonprofit organizations. Her practice is focused on helping nonprofit executives and trustees become more focused, efficient, collaborative and impactful. She can be reached at kathy@kathycohen.com

Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching for mission driven organizations. She is a frequent speaker, trainer, workshop presenter and facilitator. Nanette is the author of “On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service.” Nanette is an experienced board leader and can be reached at fridmanstrategies@gmail.com.