A groundbreaking study of nonprofit board chairs has uncovered some fascinating details about how chairs prepare for the position, as well as provocative information about their relationship with the chief executive officer.

Judy Freiwirth, Psy.D., principal of Nonprofit Solutions Associates and chair of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management’s Governance Affinity Group, was part of the research team that recently released the study Voices of Nonprofit Board Chairs.

Freiwirth shares some of her observations about what she found striking in the results of Voices of Nonprofit Board Chairs:

  • There is a lack of chair preparation for the important role. “I think one of the main findings of the study that we heard from chairs was that they are generally not prepared for the role,” Freiwirth said.
  • This is interesting, she said, because of what is already known from other research: The board chair role is critical to the effectiveness of the board, how it runs and functions, its dynamics, the type of focus the board brings to its work and its effectiveness or lack of results.

    “So factor that into how little preparation the chair has before they assume the role,” Freiwirth said, and that can be viewed as worrisome.

    What was also interesting to the study’s authors is that many chairs learned how to chair a board by observing the board’s previous chair. “That concerned us,” Freiwirth said, “because the previous chair could be ineffective, and if that is true, it could possibly perpetuate more board dysfunction.”

  • Chairs have little access to research-based information on their role. Related to that, Freiwirth said, the survey’s authors were surprised at how little access board chairs had to resources such as books, magazines and newsletters or online materials on their role. “They weren’t reading about their role much at all,” she said.

    Compared to other issues related to board governance, there is comparatively little written about the role and even less that is research-based, she said. “What they are reading about is more practical in nature and not research-based on what actually works,” Freiwirth said.

  • Chairs don’t view community engagement as part of the chair’s work. “When asked about the board chair role in relation to the community, it was interesting that the chairs did not perceive their role to be connecting with community stakeholders or to be involved with advocacy or fundraising,” Freiwirth said. The risk in that, she said, is that the board can become too insular and isolated if the chair perpetuates that belief. This has the ability to affect how the board connects with its constituents, the community and donors, she said.
  • “This was a significant finding for us,” Freiwirth said. That’s important, because a key aspect of the board’s governance role is community engagement, she said.

Other findings of note:

  • Many chairs assume the role within their first year on the board, and 55% within their first three years on the board. This didn’t surprise the study’s authors too much, but it does present risks to the organization and board.
  • “Often no one wants the chair role,” Freiwirth said. So whoever is persuaded to take it gets the top board position, she said. “This is all part of the chair’s lack of preparation for the role,” she said.

    The warning sign here in assuming the chair position early in board tenure is that the chair position is so critical. “That’s very worrisome,” Freiwirth said.

    If you have someone that is not prepared for the chair position, it again perpetuates more dysfunction on the board, particularly in its relationship with the CEO, Freiwirth said.

  • Why aren’t resources on the chair’s leadership role being accessed? “We hypothesized that much of the leadership material available is about the board’s role and responsibilities,” Freiwirth said. “There is so much material available on the board that it may be overwhelming and they don’t necessarily know how to find material focused on leadership.”
  • Many chairs (77%) identified themselves as supervising the CEO some of the time, with 40% stating much of the time. This may be a burden and a danger signal to boards.
  • Is that indicative of the CEO deferring too much to the chair? “The research shows us the chair/CEO partnership is important,” Freiwirth said. But it’s not a supervising relationship such as the one the CEO has with staff, she said.

    In the traditional model of governance, the chair assumes most of the leadership responsibility, Freiwirth said. The study’s authors have a recommendation for the board to consider to improve its effectiveness: Consider sharing the board’s leadership responsibilities among other members of the board, Freiwirth said.

For more information, email Judy@NonprofitSA.com; to download a copy of Voices of Nonprofit Board Chairs, go to http://boardresearch.strikingly.com.