The Five Star Board Chair Checklist

great board chair

Here is Karen, the model board chair.  She and I are flanking Time Inc’s Norm Pearlstine at a GLAAD event.  I still have that suit.  Doesn’t fit.

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think about your nonprofit board chair?

Take your time. It’s just the two of us.

If you answered, “Great!” consider yourself very, very lucky.

But I’m betting there are words like these:

“Completely unavailable.”


“All about the power.”


Ouch! But I say this from long experience. These are the words I hear most often.

Personally, I’ve been extremely lucky. For six of my eight years as a nonprofit executive director, I had a five-star board chair. I firmly believe that our partnership was at the core of what was a robust, strategic and effective nonprofit organization.  More than anything else, it is was my partnership with Karen that was at the root of the health and vibrancy of our organization. (Note the use of the word “our” and not “my.”)

Using Karen as a model, the following checklist is a combination of skills and attributes and should serve as the basis for discussion with your board governance committee when talking about the leadership pipeline on your board. (Did I just hear someone say, “What I wouldn’t give for a leadership pipeline?” I thought so.  Another day, another article, my friends).

Read on for the checklist.

First, it’s important to understand what a great board chair is and what a great board chair isn’t.

  • A great board chair does not provide “cover” for the executive director, ensuring those big bad board members don’t make her life miserable. “Cover” implies a protection and ED’s do not and should not have protection; they should have support.
  • A great board chair does not run the organization. The ED does this. A board chair is a strategic thought partner. And the ED must allow the board chair to play this role.
  • A great board chair understands that managing the board, propelling it to be as effective as it can be, to take its responsibilities seriously, to actively seek new resources for the organization – these are the responsibilities that belong to her and not to the ED. The chair runs the board; the ED runs the organization.


  • Do you want the job? Seems like a pretty obvious question but a reluctant board chair doesn’t work.
  • Do you respect the work, skills and attributes of the CEO? This person will be your partner for a minimum of two years. Can you work together effectively?
  • Do you have time? Now, most Type A board members being considered for leadership positions are so busy they can barely breathe.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have time. Karen was ridiculously busy in her day job but we planned, and she understood the commitment she was making to work closely with me.  She made the time.
  • Do you have schedule autonomy? Typically, meetings are scheduled. But things come up that require board chair attention. If you have a boss who drags you into meetings with regularity and does so with precious little notice, this can be a problem for an ED with a pressing issue. And frustrating too. Because ED schedules are no less challenging.
  • Can you hear a really stupid comment or question without rolling your eyes? Board members are a mixed bag. They are volunteers and don’t always have the knowledge to combine with the enthusiasm. Their enthusiasm must be honored. But at the same time, a great board chair must diminish expectations that anything will likely come of the idea.
  • Can you ask someone a tough question in a really constructive way? I’m going to put it out there. ED’s have thinner skin than you think. They get defensive. After all, they know their organization backward and forward. You? You’re just a volunteer. You don’t know what it’s really like. It can be very unflattering. Board chairs need to, in that context, learn how to ask smart, constructive questions that lead to productive conversations rather than a 15-minute defense.
  • Can you meet face to face with your CEO at least monthly? You need time that is not focused on a narrow and tactical agenda. You need to exhale and breathe through larger issues, issues that are coming down the pike. You need a partner to brainstorm with, a thought partner. And if you are talking about centerpieces for the event tables rather than a strategy for capitalizing on the event to build your major donor program, you miss the most important part of the relationship. The most valuable.
  • Can you enthusiastically model good fundraising behavior? Board members will follow your lead. If your rolodex is open and being mined, board members will see what that looks like. And if they choose not to go that route, it won’t be because they don’t see what that looks like.
  • Can you mentor and guide committee chairs? Done properly, today’s committee chairs are tomorrow’s board leaders. Have the chairs worked with their committees to set annual goals; to identify a project they want to work on?  Do they meet regularly? How is attendance? What kind of agenda is circulated?  How is the meeting facilitated? Far too often, the staff liaison takes responsibility for the meeting agenda and the forward motion at the meeting. Not her/his role.
  • Can you take the time to appreciate the successes of the staff? When something happens, are you going to be able to make time to shoot an email to staff ASAP? More importantly, can you command the attention of the board to encourage them to do the same? Can’t tell you how demoralizing it is for staff to send out exciting news and get total and complete radio silence from the board. At first, CEOs confirm that the email has gone out. Then they just assume you don’t care.
  • Would you consider yourself a good coach / mentor? The role of board chair is a delicate one indeed. You really don’t tell the ED what to do but coaching them to ask the right questions, to consider more dimensions of the issue — this kind of guidance can be invaluable.

So, as a board governance committee, do you ask prospective board chairs any questions at all? Or are you so desperate for someone to take the job that you wouldn’t dare for fear of “scaring her off.” That’s not a recipe for finding a great board chair.

It’s time for board governance committees to stop thinking of leadership requests like these as impositions. It’s time to remember that board leadership is a privilege. I work with so many board chairs who love their organization with their hearts and souls and want to do right by it. They throw themselves into the gig with both feet and the enthusiasm is contagious. But it is the questions above we must not be afraid to ask.

Would you hire someone to run something for you in your day job without asking them any questions about what it will take to do the job you want to hire them for?

We all know the answer to that.

So back to my original question.

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of your nonprofit board chair?

Share in the comments below.  If you dare 🙂