The Five Star Board Chair Checklist

by Joan Garry

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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 🙂

29 thoughts on “The Five Star Board Chair Checklist”

  1. What strategies have you found successful for small NPs that have (founding) board chairs that are “micro-managing” “all about power” and “toxic?”

  2. jane. i have had clients in this space. it’s a huge challenge as there is no need to build a leadership pipeline. and the organization can become synonymous with the chair. whether good or bad, it’s not healthy for an organization. can you pull together a cadre of board members who can work with you on changing the bylaws? sure hope so!

  3. Limited relationship – we have a new Chair elected from current Directors each year. Just when the ball gets rolling… boop! Here comes another one.

  4. board chair term should be longer. 2 years i like. push for a by law change. indicate that the leadership instability at the board level makes your job more of a challenge. give that a shot.

  5. I’m in this boat. It’s creating havoc with the rest of the new board members and making it very difficult for me as ED to move this organization forward. I’ll be looking for any responses to this question

  6. First, you have to know that many ED’s have been in your shoes before! The route you take all depends on the relationships that exist. If you feel comfortable enough with your chair you should go right to the source and talk to him/her privately about the direction you need support in. Keep it positive and focus on how they can help, rather than what they are doing wrong. Volunteers like to feel useful so if you point out how they can be most useful to you often works.
    If you don’t feel comfortable enough with that route, I always like to find my champion in the group to have the peer discussion (board member to board member). This works best with another board member that is friends with and/or respected by the chair. Have a private conversation with your champion about the challenges you are having (most likely this person already sees it) and ask if they would feel comfortable addressing it on behalf of the board (not on your behalf). If they do not feel comfortable addressing the board member specifically, request that they advocate your agenda a little louder in meetings to help counter or re-direct your chair’s negativity.
    Hope this helps!

  7. The board chair and CEO need to be “in step”–as if in a three-legged race. Publicly, always a united front. The Chair supports the CEO, provides strategic governance and stays out of operations.
    When I was Chair of an independent school board and met with the Head (bimonthly), I would always ask, “What’s keeping you up at night?”

  8. What about the small non profit that is all-volunteer — no executive director with the President of the board at the helm leading the board (cajoling less active board members to “step up their game” to get the work done) not wanting to micro manage but feeling the need to supervise and set deadlines to insure that the tasks are completed.

  9. As Board Chair, I am looking for a list of interview questions to ask prospective Board Members. I personally don’t feel we are digging hard enough. We have members that have “Good intentions” when they interview but then as you say “Complete Radio Silence” whenever we put on our communication hub that we need some things completed, such as Board Reports or questions specific to a committee. I hope that makes sense because I am new to this way of thinking.

  10. I also want to add that I detest “micromanaging” and am not in this position for any pats on the back. I just enjoy the organization but I feel that I am not an effective leader as I should.

  11. how do i prepare a president elect (future chair in 6 months) who was appointed like every other board member, doesn’t have any leadership skills, and will manage a highly operational board (governance will be process for them – i’m just getting started!) i’m a half-time ED/ CSO and they have no staff, no operational committees.. we have a LONG way to go.

  12. Joan, you’re brilliant, dear. As the Founder and ED of two non profits, Boards can be a blessing and a curse. I loved your question about the ED having to defend herself. This is even more true when she IS the entire vision. I’m at the point in my 2nd non profit where I’m having to think about Boards again, and it is giving me PTSD. How can I protect myself, my vision, my place in the org, legally, without having to “cede power” to people who are supposed to be supporting me, not just placating me?

  13. My last Board Chair, was can be described as ”tired and disruptive , try to do his best, my new one that i got this month seems to be dynamic , will be able to give a more realistic answer 3moths from now. only answer

  14. How involved should the ED be in board committees? I find I have to schedule and run them, set the agenda and share notes, then manage the work.

  15. Hi Lani. My organization had much the same problem. New members came on the board because they were somebody’s sister or they live next door to some one. We formed a committee to study this and came up with criteria that we wanted new board member to have. It will differ, I am sure, from board to board, but it is a really good place to start. Plus, we had some very good conversations about board qualifications. Hope this helps.

  16. I have a friend who is and ED. She had to do the same thing you described. She acknowledged (to me) that she was enabling poor board behavior, and had a frank conversation with the board chair.
    The committee chairperson is supposed to schedule meetings, set agenda, run them, ensure the committee work gets done.
    If this isn’t happening, it’s the board chair’s responsibility to have a frank discussion with the committee chair. It might be time for the board chair to appoint a different committee chair.
    Good luck!

  17. I am a new subscriber and am learning so much from Joan’s insights. My main issue at this point is with the structure of my nonprofit. I am the first real ED that my org has ever hired. I am concerned with how the org is structured – very unusual compared to any other nonprofit over which I have acted as ED. Is there a good resource for defining and presenting structure?

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