Your First 30 Days as a Nonprofit Board Chair

by Joan Garry

OK, so you were just elected board chair. Now what? No job description, no time, no playbook. Maybe I can help.

Avoid drowning. Your board needs you.

You know you just became the new Board Chair when… (tweet this)

… Your arm is sore (it’s been twisted, after all).

… You were the only person who didn’t step back when someone said, “Interested in leadership? Step forward.”

… You haven’t seen a job description (“Oh, I think we have one somewhere.”)

… You asked if you need to know Robert’s Rules of Order and the former board chair is puzzled and says “Robert who?”

… You wanted the job some. But maybe not a lot.

… You love the organization and been on the board a few years.

… You’re a pretty good fundraiser and one of the board members the CEO turns to.

… You think the CEO is pretty great. But you see, there is that thing called your day job (THAT one has a job description… and it also pays your bills.)

So you just became the new Board Chair. Now what?

Where do you start?

Before I offer my 30 day plan, let’s look at what you signed up for.


First off, you SHOULD have a job description so you actually have some idea. So I found one for you. Read through it for a minute. Finished? Did I just hear some kind of primal scream? – maybe it was just my imagination. Two things stand out for me.

1) The Summary

As a partner to the chief executive officer (CEO) and other board members, the Board Chair will provide leadership to XYZ Nonprofit as it transitions from a newly formed 501(c)(3) organization into a sustainable national entity. The Board Chair will support and sustain the work of XYZ, and provide governance leadership and strategic fundraising support.

Note:  I don’t know what that really means either.

2) The Opportunity

This is an extraordinary opportunity for an individual who is passionate about the success of XYZ’s beneficiaries.

Bridgespan is right. It is an extraordinary opportunity to partner with your CEO and fellow board members to create a strong, robust nonprofit organization that is on a steady course toward the fulfillment of its mission. What Bridgespan didn’t say explicitly? It’s a really big job. You may be a volunteer but be prepared to feel like you have two day jobs.

  • It will be an enormous time bandit.
  • Being a partner (and not the boss) is really hard to navigate. That word “oversight” can mean so many things.
  • Some of your fellow board members will really step up and they will inspire you. But there will be others who never show up, and worse, there will be others that will make your life miserable.

Oh dear. I heard that primal scream again. My biggest piece of advice is this. Set yourself up for success right away.

Here’s how.


I have a 30 day plan for new executive directors so I thought, hey – new board chairs need em too.

This 30 day period could be the thirty days before you are elected. You already know you have the gig. I’m thinkin’ you are on that ballot all by your lonesome. So how about starting 30 days ahead?

1) Set up a three hour session with your CEO.

Did I mention that the gig was a time bandit? This is a time to shape your relationship. Talk about the following:

  • Ask each other how you see your role vis-a-vis the other.
  • Explore the word “partnership”.
  • Go through a list of board members one by one. Talk about their strengths and weaknesses. Maybe use my board assessment tool. Together, create a plan for each member. Are they leadership material? Do we want to manage them out? Can they fundraise?
  • Ask the CEO to walk you through the same assessment of the senior staff. Partners need to know the real skinny about their respective teams.
  • See if you can come to some consensus about the role of the executive committee. Can it be transformed into a real kitchen cabinet for the two of you? (Learn how to build a more effective executive committee.)
  • Ask the CEO to prepare a document ahead of time that looks at board fundraising – in its aggregate and by person. Talk about needs. Should a training be planned?
  • Agree on a WEEKLY MEETING time. Non-negotiable. Ask the CEO to circulate a meaningful agenda the morning before for your review. (Here’s a sample agenda.)

2) Set up time to meet with the former board chair.

Precious few of us have the chance to learn what to do (or not to do) from the person who had our job before we did. New board chairs usually have that opportunity and don’t capitalize on it.

3) Reach out to every board member.

30-45 minute conversation. Think of it as a one-on-one focus group. Take notes.

  • Why did you join the board?
  • How has the experience been for you so far?
  • How can I as the Chair better support you?
  • Critique our board meetings.
  • Make requests – whatever they may be based on the 3 hours with the CEO.
  • Finish this statement: “In order for us to be successful as a board in the next 12 months, I believe our board needs to _______________________ .  Secure buy-in around that.
  • Thank them for their service (even if you hope they resign tomorrow).

4) Set your own goals.  Just 2 or 3.

I’ve been working with a fine Board Chair. We had lunch just as he was taking on the role of Chair. He told me that one of his key goals for the coming year was to take real steps to create a more effective board.

I saw him a few days ago. He has reconfigured the executive committee (with buy in from all parties), he is reconfiguring board meetings to make them more enriching for the board members and less taxing on the staff. He has even managed to put someone who loves fundraising in the role of Development Committee chair (he’s not just a Board Chair – he may also be a miracle worker).

5) Buy a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order and read it.

It really is embarrassing when the chair does not use them and follow them. It’s a simple thing and maybe you operate less formally. But a board member at a meeting that is following them knows she is at a real meeting where real things happen.

(P.S. The guy’s last name was Robert, not his first name).

6) Make room on your calendar for this work.

Accept the fact that you will be spending a lot of time in this role. It is demanding.

If you fight that, you will not be successful. If you accept that and use that time wisely, if you work to create a real partnership with the CEO and create real relationships with your board colleagues, the time will be well spent.

And maybe – just maybe – you will look back on your tenure with a sense of real accomplishment and pride. That’s my hope for you.  

7) Never stop learning.

Being a new Board Chair is a work in progress. Reach out to the Chairs of other nonprofits so you can learn from them.

Next: Learn how to build a terrific and effective Board of Directors.

3 thoughts on “Your First 30 Days as a Nonprofit Board Chair”

  1. There is a lot that I like about this, like having the Board Chair get feedback and build strong relationships across the board. But I’m a bit squeamish about a few other ideas. For example, I’m nervous about the suggestion that the Board Chair and the CEO decide by themselves which board members they want to “manage out.” Where is the board’s governance committee in this conversation? What are the criteria being used for this decision, and are those criteria shared broadly by the full board, or just two people wanting to get rid of another member who might be an irritant because he or she happens to ask challenging but necessary questions at board meetings? I’ve seen one too many boards that are ineffective and unsatisfying to other members because of collusion between the ED and the Board Chair to make decisions without the rest of the board.

  2. Gayle. Your point is very well made. Too much collusion between the Board and ED is dysfunction and call lead to all sorts of other problems. My thinking here was perhaps overly simplistic. It was simplistically about having a discussion to get inside each other’s heads. Who are the high performers, the middle group who will do something if asked and then the ‘dead weight.” I do think it is important for the duo to talk about who they perceive as dead weight and (a) see if they are on the same page and b) how might we address it, using our power wtih board governance. etc.

  3. Joan,
    I agree completely that it is important for the board chair and ED to develop a solid understanding of each other and how to work with each other.
    I’d still recommend that any analysis of individual board member functioning is best held in a well-functioning Governance Committee.

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