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Not for Profit Board Chairs Often Unprepared for Leadership Role – Study

23 August 2016 at 12:57 pm
Lina Caneva
A new study on the perspectives and perceptions of Not for Profit board chairs has found that more than half did nothing to prepare for their new leadership roles.

Lina Caneva | 23 August 2016 at 12:57 pm


Not for Profit Board Chairs Often Unprepared for Leadership Role – Study
23 August 2016 at 12:57 pm

A new study on the perspectives and perceptions of Not for Profit board chairs has found that more than half did nothing to prepare for their new leadership roles.

Board survey graphic 3 board room

The Alliance for Nonprofit Management study is described as a first step in hearing directly from NFP board chairs about their experiences and perceptions.

Called Voices of Nonprofit Chairs, the study looked at 635 chairs from Not for Profit organisations across the US and delivered a number of major findings:

  • 51 per cent did nothing specific to prepare for the role of board chair
  • many chairs have not been on their boards for very long (39 per cent have between one and three years of board experience, with only 10 per cent having seven to nine years experience)
  • board chairs agree they would have benefited from mentoring and other resources
  • however most report they are focusing on the top priority areas for their boards and have a good relationship with their CEOs.

The survey found that when provided with a range of specific ways they might have prepared for the board chair role, only a little over half (56 per cent) stated that they followed some intentional process. And when considering possible preparatory steps like first holding a different officer seat or chairing a board committee, only 13 per cent stated they had held roles as vice chair.

Eighty per cent of respondents said that serving as a committee chair was helpful experience for becoming a board chair but did not indicate that it was an intentional route to board chair.

Only 19 per cent indicated that “becoming chair was a natural progression” but the data didn’t reveal how that was interpreted by the respondent.

Only 24 per cent said they were recommended by their nominating committee when asked how they came to be board chair.

Board chairs said they frequently turned to the prior board chair for information. Seventy per cent rated “observing the prior chair” as helpful or very helpful and 50 per cent found asking the outgoing chair for advice as helpful or very helpful.

Fifty per cent said that asking the CEO for advice was high on their list of helpfulness.

Consultants and coaches were reported as least likely to be found to be helpful and also the least likely to be considered a resource.

Board chairs identified the internet (42 per cent), local workshops (37 per cent) and books they had purchased (33 per cent) when asked about what sources of information were found to be helpful. Only 11 per cent described local libraries as somewhat to very helpful.

When asked what one resource, person or experience a chair would liked to have had to help them prepare to be board chair the most common themes included mentoring, peer networking, training and access to a specific resource on demand.

The study found that overall the board chairs’ responses indicated an interest and willingness to learn. They tended to look to a colleague such as a former board chair and / or CEO within their current organisation for advice and were not aware of, or chose not to use, a variety of resources external to their Not for Profits that might be helpful to their role as chair.

Chairs were also asked to identify their top three duties as board chair in relation to the board from a list of 11 duties.

The highest ranking went to:

  • keep the board’s focus on the organisation’s strategic direction (64 per cent)
  • ensure the board fulfils its governance responsibilities (49 per cent)
  • preside over and manage board meetings (42 per cent).

However the study said respondents also expressed reluctance to chose a top three, saying they viewed their role with the board as multifaceted and often situational.

Board survey leadership graph

They were also asked to identify their type of leadership from a list of four options.

Just over half described themselves as a “team builder who cultivated othr leadership and delegated responsibility” and only about one-quarter reported that they “built widespread consensus before action can be taken”.

About 8 per cent described themselves as a “take charge, forge ahead and decisive, independent leader”. Three per cent said that the CEO and another board member were actually leading the board.

The survey also offered board chairs five different choices to describe their feelings about leading the board. Chairs reported high degrees of feeling competent (87 per cent), confident (84 per cent) and supported (81 per cent). Seventy per cent reported feeling sometimes frustrated, and only 34 per cent sometimes felt isolated.

Board survey graphic 2

When asked who was the most responsible for developing board meeting agendas, 42 per cent indicated that they developed agendas in collaboration with their CEO, 16 per cent indicated that the CEO developed the agenda and 15 per cent of board chairs developed it alone.

The nature of the relationship between the board chair and CEO was also canvassed. When asked what the relationship was built on, 92 per cent said communication between meetings, 90 per cent said meeting obligations to one another and 88 per cent said mutual trust.

When asked about their leadership role in relation to community and stakeholders, respondents said they were most engaged with the community by attending community events (49 per cent said “sometimes” and 42 per cent said “frequently”).

The survey also asked about co-leadership and other shared leadership models. The survey revealed that only 6 per cent of chairs described themselves as co-chairs and only 8 per cent of respondents reported that their organisations had a co-executive leadership. The highest percentage came from the arts and cultural organisations (15 per cent) and environmental organisations (14 per cent).

The researchers said the findings provided important practice implications and recommendations for the Not for Profit sector.

“This was especially so when 16 per cent of board chairs reported that they had only served on their board for less than a year and 56 per cent reported they had only served on their board for three years or less before becoming the chair,” the research team said.

“An intentional, well planned practice of grooming and selection, which includes leadership development for new board chairs, may facilitate more successful transitions and effective board leadership.”

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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