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News & Information: Board Governance

Voices from the Field: Zen and the Art of the Nonprofit Board Chair

Thursday, April 12, 2018   (0 Comments)
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By Kathy Ridge | 04.12.18 

(Photo by Nick Kenrick, "Sakura series")

Have you ever wondered what creates a great board leader and why, despite all the publications and workshops, there are not more of them? My own firm offers leadership workshops, but we continue to notice the wide range between board leadership that’s just OK and great board leadership.

Is it maturity and life experience that is lacking, as board chairs are younger and have less corporate experience to bring to the role? Could it be that the people who become board chairs are stretched too thin to do much deep thinking about the board and nonprofit they serve? All of that plays into it, of course, but rather than thinking further about why there are so few great board leaders, I choose to think about those who havebeen really good and changed their nonprofits for the better.

Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many such leaders and have reflected on why they were “the right person at the right time.” I’ve concluded they came into the role more to learn something than to “give something back”—more to actively participate, stay curious, and develop new skills rather than try to squeeze in yet one more commitment to make time for benevolent sharing of their leadership.

When I think of those who have been really good board chairs, they seem to harmonize their experience and intellect with alertness and intuitiveness. As Robert Pirsig wrote in his 1974 classic book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values,

The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.*

These board chairs “work outward from there.”

Beyond Robert’s Rules of Order, BoardSource’s and others’ handbooks—more than formalized job descriptions for a nonprofit board chair—both Zen and Art are needed when serving as leader for a nonprofit organization.

In a corporate role, you have support, staff, and protection by bureaucracy to help you steer a function at your command. As a volunteer nonprofit board leader, you are like the motorcyclist without the car:

In a car, you’re always in a compartment and because you’re used it you don’t realize that through that car window, everything is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame…on a cycle, the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore.*

Nonprofit leaders are in the scene.

Nonprofit organizations work toward accomplishment of mission, which might or might not occur during a single board chair’s term, or even a single lifetime. While nonprofits are businesses and do need to make more money than they spend, they’re also delivering services to those who can’t afford them. This dichotomy requires logical approaches to problem-solving and intuitive insights.

You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.*

Rationality is required to govern and steer the organization; relationship and communication skills are needed to persuade and influence others to come along. Intuition and artistry are necessary to construct new solutions based upon discerning patterns and deep, original thinking.

Because the challenges are so large, and board chairs’ time is relatively short—plus the “volunteer” label of board work—board chairs must frequently assume a certain posture of distance from the organization, in contrast with the intensity with which they approach their “real job.”

As a deeply engaged board chair, you will find problems and issues you have never before encountered. And the more complex the conundrum, you more you will realize you don’t have the level of skill or any prior experience that fits.

If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then it might be much better off than when it was loaded with ideas.*

This encounter with your leadership limitations will be one of the greatest benefits you gain from this experience. You will stretch and grow unimaginably by plunging into something new in a completely different way instead of trying to keep your distance. If you lean into these challenges—with a group of board members and nonprofit staff all participating and steering the course—you’ll be more in aggregate than any of you as solo experts. You are not expected as the board chair to “save” them; you are expected to guide them.

When we coach prospective board chairs or board chair nominees, we always ask first, “What attracts you to this organization?” One wrong answer for a prospective board chair is, “My company asked me to serve.” It’s wrong because of the self-reflection and time required to do the job properly. This isn’t a pastime, duty, or hobby—it is a part-time second job. This is not about making some time available to donate your wisdom; it is about investing time to broaden your thinking and leadership that will positively change the nonprofit (and yourself).

Board chairs who characterize this as a volunteer assignment might confuse this with a superficial level of engagement that they can turn on and off. They might expect to never, ever be called upon to donate serious mental time or for it to be as complex as their “real job.” Yes, they know it requires hours every week to meet with donors, facilitate board members and meetings, make connections and introductions, and offer support to the executive director. But they often overlook that daily walks, exercise, showers, and driving time will be (or should be) occupied with thinking about the nonprofit, about needing to initiate difficult conversations, about seemingly insurmountable issues and uncertain futures. You need to be driven by the mission and learning something beyond your own experience to date. When being a board chair starts to feel like hard work, concrete responsibility, and accountability, we often remind ourselves, “But this is just a volunteer job!” It’s an excuse to get some distance from what might be our greatest contribution to the organization, the lesson we are there to learn, and the reason we could be the best person for this role at the exact right time.

One example is a circumstance many board chairs encounter: realizing the executive director has not been managed or not been managed well. Over 70 percent of nonprofit executive directors say they don’t get performance feedback at all. Most of us are in awe of what they do and how they get so much done with so little. We just want to be sure they are happy and know they are appreciated. The last thing we want to do is upset them in anyway or shake their confidence.

The board chair has the responsibility to manage the executive director, the other volunteer board members, and the aggregate board. Most don’t. Maybe it seems unnecessary because of the stellar executive director, or perhaps it seems like too much work for the effort when, generally, everything is fine. So often, we kick the can down the road of niggling leadership issues. “It’s not that big a deal…yet.”

An attuned board chair needs to make the time to offer observations, ask thoughtful questions, and, with civility and respect, share issues of board members’ discomfort that could potentially erode confidence in staff leadership. It doesn’t have to be a big “sit down and let’s talk about your performance” summit; these are suggested adjustments that will enhance board and organization leadership.

It’s important to realize the relationship you will have with the executive director will be one of the most important you have during your time in the role. You will be building trust in each other, supporting one another as partners, and helping keep direction clear and aligned for the organization, staff, and board. A self-reflective question for a board member considering the role of chair is, “Am I someone who can helpfully discuss agency performance clearly and frankly with the executive director, with both of us being non-defensive about what actions by board and staff need to occur and both clearly focused on what’s best?”

A valuable board leader will make active decisions about when and how to address the performance of the agency, board members, board committees, and the executive director. If goals are missed, fundraising falls short of targets, progress on strategic plan benchmarks fall behind…these need to be addressed in constructive, timely ways. Not addressing such issues will build up concerns and diminish confidence and trust between board and staff, as well as preventing optimal results.

When things (often financial performance) get noticeably off kilter, board members and board chairs suddenly sit up straighter and might start coloring outside the lines, getting into daily details and working around the executive director. A frequent negative comment I hear of board chairs concerns those who get “in the weeds” about staff work and daily operations. Hopefully, the board chair will recognize this instinct is a root cause of a deeper matter. Often, that deeper issue is a questioning of confidence in leadership, or a point of pain has been allowed to grow without discussion or problem-solving until it has mounted into a problem no one wants to own.

All of us who have served on nonprofit boards could share illustrative stories about poor board leadership: the board chair who chastises staff in front of others; the board chair who assumes the role of corporate titan with full autonomous authority for the organization rather than facilitating the board and partnering with the executive director; the board chair who is not able to contribute time for regular meetings with the executive director, or fundraising calls, or to be the visible leader of the board to the community.

When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things.*

At least that is how others can perceive it—and you. Board members thinking about the chair role should consider, “To what degree will I be willing to devote some mental time and brainpower and be attentive, attuned, and present?”

A board chair who, on his or her own initiative, convenes meetings about the operations and core responsibilities of the organization creates a trust and confidence issue between the board and the CEO. Calling such a meeting might be an expedient way to get all the folks in the room, but is it up to the board chair to be the convener and decider, or to take the time to coach the ED to do it?

We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on “good” rather than “time” and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes.*

If you allow board members to spend time in dysfunctional side conversations, veer off track, revisit decisions, some board members might rise up, but some will disappoint you. These dynamics are not solved by Robert’s protocols.

Leading a nonprofit board calls for being self-reflective and self-evaluating because no one else will do that for you. You can gather information and feedback, but you need deep-thinking time to make adjustments and shifts in your direction and leadership.

The exceptional board chair is the exception. More than 80 percent of executive director respondents in a 2010 study said that less than one third of the board chairs they worked with were exceptional. They were asked about effective board chair characteristics, and instead of citing qualities we’d expect such as “proactive,” “inspirational,” “trusting,” “committed,” “open,” and “passionate,” exceptional board chairs were seen as highly skilled at “using the chair role to clarify the work of the board and the issues it faces. Rather than using the position for personal satisfaction or to advance their careers (though those might be valuable by-products of a chair experience), they used the role as a lever to facilitate organizational change.”1

Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster.*

There is no leadership role in your career or life that can positively impact so many as that of nonprofit board chair. Your tenure will benefit or negatively distract the CEO and staff, stakeholders, other board members, and the clients served. You can make a lasting impact on the future sustainability and the success of the mission. You will witness the direct results of your leadership in the enrichment of lives, in the services provided to those in need, in the learning and advancement of staff and clients. Your steady hands will guide, balancing between business rationality and self-reflecting discernment. Board leadership will give proof of your ability to influence and lead for the good of others. Through Zen and Art, you will see your leadership spur the performance of others in a way not visible to you in other avenues of your life. Your term as a nonprofit board chair can be no less than a lifetime accomplishment, as well as life-enriching for you.

The more you look, the more you see.*


  1. Yvonne D. Harrison, Ph. D., “Perspectives on the Role and Impact of Chairs of Nonprofit Organization Boards of Directors,” Nonprofit Management & Leadership, State University at Albany, and Vic Murray, Ph.D., University of Victoria. October 17, 2010, accessed March 12, 2018. See also Yvonne Harrison, Vic Murray, and Chris Cornforth, “Perceptions of board chair leadership effectiveness in nonprofit and voluntary sector organizations,” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary Nonprofit Organizations, volume 24, issue 3, pp. 688–712, accessed March 12, 2018.

All quotations with asterisks (*) are from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig, William Morrow, 1974.

About Author

Kathy Ridge is CEO of LevRidge Resources, LLC, a consulting firm advancing nonprofits by strengthening their leadership, business and operations modeling, and mission for a sustainable future.

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