The 8 Attributes of an Outstanding Board Chair

by Joan Garry

Think you're ready to win Board Chair Family Feud? Make sure you have all the resources you need to make it happen by requesting your invitation to join the Nonprofit Leadership Lab before the bell rings!

For the first time in two and a half years, I boarded a plane and gave a keynote speech at an in-person conference.

Not gonna lie — I was kind of cranky about it at first. It’s been a while since I had to wear something presentable from the waist down, and, unsurprisingly, not much fit.

But I love this organization (The First Tee), and I’ve worked with them in the past. Plus, a whole posse of them are members of our online community, the Nonprofit Leadership Lab… so off to Dallas I went.

I ended up totally loving it! And this actually makes perfect sense.

Studies show that people who gather in community are healthier physically and emotionally. Further, studies point to evidence that kindred spirits gathered in community generate new ideas. They innovate. They become agents of change.

In addition to the keynote, I led an interactive workshop on the relationship between the board chair and the executive director and my belief that it is the single most important indicator of a healthy nonprofit.

And because my workshops are more offbeat than others, I decided to play a little version of Family Feud. I have always thought it would be great fun to be a game show host.

Wanna play along? Let’s go!

The top 8 answers are on the board… here’s the question:

     Name something that every nonprofit organization needs in a board chair…


In my mind, my contestants missed the top 8 answers.

Well, that’s not entirely true. They didn’t miss the answers conceptually. Their answers were actually very good. Words like collaborative, encouraging, engaged, available, motivated came up and were added to our flip chart.

But as the “host” of Board Chair Family Feud, the answers at the top of MY list were a bit more specific, clear, and a bit pointed. Ready? It’s my turn to show you what my survey says!


Bells begin to ring and we find that answer right there in the #2 spot.

Board Chair Family Feud board with Passion in the second slot.

Wow!!! #2. Aren’t you dying to know the #1 answer? So here’s why this shows up as #2. Look at every board prospect like a hot water heater with a pilot light. The pilot light is a metaphor for their passion for the mission of YOUR organization, YOUR cause. You need to be looking for a big bright pilot light. The brighter the light, the greater the enthusiasm to be an ambassador, a storyteller, and yes, (GASP!) a fundraiser. 

Also, the greater the motivation to engage the rest of the board. AND the greater the fortitude when it comes to doing hard things.


Bells ring again!!!!!! That one is right there at #8: No eye-rolling” 

Board Chair Family Feud board with No Eye Rolling in the eighth slot.

A high-functioning board is filled with diverse volunteers who care about the organization and want to come up with good ideas. Sometimes (and it’s inevitable) these ideas are not very good. Actually, let’s just say it — some of them are stupid.

We’ve all heard them around the board table. You want a board chair that will honor what is behind the stupid comment with a response like, “I appreciate your innovative thinking — but, I’m not totally sure that aligns with our strategic priorities. Why don’t E.D. and I take that idea offline and circle back to you?”

I’M ON A ROLL —  LET’S TRY (crowd is now cheering wildly): “ORGANIZED?”

The host hesitates. Will I get credit for what is behind #6? YES, I’m told. 

Bells start to ring as this appears on the board:

Reliable. Shows up for meetings with E.D. / Respectful of time at board meetings”

Board Chair Family Feud board with Reliable / Shows Up in the sixth slot.

Yay! I get credit for that one. A great board chair respects YOUR time. You don’t have to turn into a pretzel to accommodate them. 

And a great board chair knows better than to pick up the phone while at gate 56 at JFK terminal 6 to ask “Wassup?” stopping the E.D. smack in the middle of their job so that the board chair gets credit for being communicative.


Bingo. Right there at #4. “Humble confidence”

Board Chair Family Feud board with Humble Confidence in the fourth slot.

The survey might also have said: “Joined board for the right reason.” It might also have said “Right-Sized Ego”. Folks with big egos, who ran for board chair so they could add to their CV? They make poor thought partners. They often think they know best. 

We don’t want someone who thinks they know all the answers but rather someone who asks really good questions.


YES!!!!! #3. Works to be good at it!

Board Chair Family Feud board with Works To Be Good At It in the third slot.

Being a board chair is a hard and important job. If you tell your new board chair that and ask if they would like some resources and they jump at the chance to actually learn about how to do this important job well, that is a very good sign indeed.

Three slots left on the board (including #1). There’s a whole lot of nail-biting going on…


Board Chair Family Feud board with Values Partnership in the seventh slot.

Again, the bells ring as #7 is revealed on the board. Those of you who read my blog or listen to my podcast know that I refer to the board chair and the Executive Director as co-pilots in a twin-engine jet. If I am boarding a plane, I want to believe that I have a real partnership in that cockpit — mutual respect, trust, the ability to give and receive feedback… 

You don’t get that on day one, but you need a chair who values that and works to build that with you.

Now we have just two slots left to reveal…


Checking with the judge on this one. And yes, the bells ring. And we see:

“Understands that service is a privilege”

Board Chair Family Feud board with Understands That Service Is A Privilege in the fifth slot.

Being a board chair is not just a volunteer gig. You are a partner with the E.D. in doing some of the most important work there is: solving some of the world’s biggest problems, making someone’s day just a little brighter, and offering a glimmer of hope to someone in need. 

To have the opportunity to be a leader in such an organization is a responsibility that should be treated with a certain amount of reverence. And it should feel like a gift. A privilege.

So what the heck is the #1 answer? Stumped?


Wants the job.

Board Chair Family Feud board with Wants The Job in the first slot.

This is the #1 answer on my Family Feud board for a reason. I interact with thousands of nonprofits every single day inside the Nonprofit Leadership Lab. I joke that many board chairs became board chairs because they went to the restroom during the vote and returned to find that they had been elected unanimously. 

I worked with a new organization and sat at the board table and said ok, we need a chair. 

I described the role. No takers. 

I said, “I’m not in a hurry — you are not a board until you have a chair, a leader. Let’s talk about the job and have a real conversation about the traits needed.”

We didn’t play Family Feud, but we got these traits on the table. As it turned out, all roads led to two individuals that agreed to co-chair the board. Then, I let them all go home. 

The co-chair model can work well, and in this case, it ended up working out very well.


  1. Wants the job
  2. Passion
  3. Works to be good at it
  4. Humble confidence
  5. Understands that service is a privilege
  6. Reliable / shows up
  7. Values partnership
  8. No eye rolling


It may be hard to imagine having fun at a Board Governance meeting, but let’s give it a go.

As you are getting ready to think about the leadership pipeline on your board, set the table for the conversation with a game of Family Feud and have folks come up with traits. Use this blog post to spark conversation about what really matters and let these eight traits be the foundation or the lens by which you evaluate prospective board members, committee chairs, and board leaders.

Move away from, “We really need a candlestick maker” or worse yet, “We just need more women,” and start talking about the traits that really matter as the lens by which you evaluate everyone in your nonprofit board’s leadership pipeline.

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