Call to Leadership: Profiles of Board Chairs

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With so many nonprofits out there looking for the perfect board chair, the search can seem more trying than it needs to be when the qualities to look for in a worthy candidate appear unclear. What are the ideal traits an effective board chair would possess? We interviewed some folks who are known in the sector as above average chairs and asked them to share their thoughts on what they believed to be some of the major and most effective ingredients going into their role as chair.

While a chair’s techniques and responsibilities are transferable from one board to the next, consistent with David Renz’s assertions (see article on page 52 of this issue), all of the individuals we interviewed made clear that the work of every board must be approached differently according to the needs of each organization and the mission-related results the organization is seeking to accomplish. This means that the board chair role changes as well, so here we have tried to give you a sense of their individual characters; look to Judy Millesen’s article (page 38) for a sense of how their practices and beliefs jibe with one another.

Below, we let them describe themselves and their characteristics to you directly. We were enormously impressed with their commitment and thoughtfulness, and trust that you will be as well.

Joy Johnson on Credibility

Encouraged by a mentor to get more deeply involved, Joy Johnson started her board career with Head Start in 1984, when her twins were four. But because Joy didn’t think she had what it took to chair a board, it wasn’t until 1990, with her resident association board, that she truly ever acted as chair. “I thought it took a degree,” she said. “I thought you had to have some kind of … real good education.”

Always having been unclear as to what the function and duty of the chair was before she served in that role herself, Joy shared with us her early uncertainties: “I thought, ‘I can’t do that, I don’t have that power. I don’t have any idea what knowledge someone would need to chair a board.’ But once I accepted the position and was able to be sent to a lot of training, I finally understood what it took. I didn’t understand it right away, because you know your ego gets in the way. It took a while for me to understand that the chairperson was just the mouthpiece of the organization and they really don’t have any power … you are elected to be the person who keeps everyone on task, and you as chair are a part of that board, you are part of that team, and you have no more power than the other board members.”

For Joy, the notion of team was essential in maintaining credibility. “If you don’t include everybody who’s at the table,” she noted, “your credibility will go right down the drain.” She called on her experience chairing a resident board to further illustrate the link between inclusion and credibility: “We cannot exclude people from coming to meetings or from being on boards. Just because they have a crisis in their life doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be a part of a board. And a lot of times what I see in the residential organization is that if you have an issue, people hold it against you and say, ‘You are not good enough to be on a board and you are not good enough to be a part of this organization.’”

“You have to know who you have sitting at the table and what their capability is, and in order for you to do that, you’ve got to know the people. And how do you get to know the people? You have to build a relationship with them. How do you build a relationship with them? Simply. You support their issues, and you shut your mouth. Listen to what is important to them and then try to help solve the problem. If it’s just your issue that’s getting answered all the time, then you are not going to have anyone to support your issue.”

Joy has since served on and chaired boards of many different sizes—local, statewide, and national. They include such entities as the Monticello Area Community Action Agency Board, her local Housing Authority board, a social service advisory board, the Virginia Association of Neighborhoods Board, a legal aid board, the citywide Public Housing Association of Residents (PHAR), and the National Low Income Coalition Board. Each one, she comments, requires a slightly different approach, but some things are constant—and respect for other board members is obviously high on that list.

Cindy Kozmetsky on Listening to Lead

Many paths can lead one into a board chair role, and the opportunity often comes when least expected. Perhaps you were minding your business being an avid board member, doing your homework, showing up to all the meetings, and then…BAM! You’ve been nabbed. No longer flying under the radar screen, you have been given the great honor of keeping everything both in line and in top working order.

Cindy Kozmetsky from Austin, Texas, described her reaction when her local Junior League first asked her to chair its board. “When the nominating committee showed up at my home and asked me to be the president-elect—which meant I would ultimately become president—my first reaction was, ‘Oh my, they’ve gone to the wrong house!’ But I was just tickled to death, I had been moved up from board member to treasurer of that group and I certainly felt comfortable in my qualifications to go ahead and accept the role.” Cindy has subsequently become the chair of almost every board she has ever chosen to serve on; these are mostly fairly large organizations such as a children’s hospital foundation and her local public television station board, but she has also chaired Austin’s management support organization for local nonprofits, as well as others. She credits her effectiveness to the intensive leadership training she received through the League, as well her stance as being an ardent “learner”—watching how those she respects take on challenges with which she might someday be faced.

And there are challenges. In describing the difficulties she experienced in working through one complicated decision-making process, she commented, “If you’re going to be the leader or a chair of anything, and think you’re not going to get rapped upside the head two or three times, you’re crazy. You are where the buck stops, where the baseball bat stops, where the haranguing stops, and you’ve got to develop something of a thick skin.” She argues that her “armor” has always been a fundamental belief that she is doing the right thing, and that this is well crafted by “not only listening, but hearing and integrating what people are saying.”

This is important to ensure “that you are well-prepared so that you’re never blindsided—that’s a big one, because a big slip could just ruin all of your organization’s credibility in the community.”

Elizabeth Seja Min on the Importance of Making Expectations Clear

The story of building an organization and its board on an as-needed basis is familiar one. This story in particular started when a couple of filmmakers from the Bay Area made several award-winning and groundbreaking documentaries designed to be used to teach about gay and lesbian issues. They were made with the hope that they would be used in schools and lead to attitude shifts and a reduction in violence. The filmmakers were surprised by the groundswell of conversations within the educational system that their film spurred as well as the intense demand for copies of the film and outreach materials on using the films.

Here’s where we meet our next chair, Elizabeth Seja Min. Elizabeth had sat for short bursts of time on four different boards over the past 15 years. However, it was not until these filmmakers asked friends of like mind to serve on what was at first a makeshift board—to help them devise various parts of the organization—that Elizabeth was really able to pick up the ball and run with it. As with many young organizations that initially operate informally, the group began to experience staff leadership and systems problems that might have seriously damaged the organization if the board hadn’t inserted itself. And because the board itself was young, someone had to manage its involvement.

This was not easy stuff. Elizabeth had to observe boundaries carefully and in a way that recognized the dedicated talent of the founding members and the significant organizational development that had been achieved under their leadership but also was attentive to the types of skills needed to manage the growth and be honest about expectations. “What I had to do was decide that I was not going to wait for people to volunteer for board jobs because that would take too long, ”she explains. “So in certain situations, I just got in the habit of asking people directly, and in front of other members, to take on leadership. When the treasurer needed to leave the board because of a business situation I asked one of the other board members to play the role on an interim basis for the next six months. And he would say, ‘Oh I don’t know, I don’t know.’ And I said, ‘Well I’m really asking you if you will do it.’ And then it would be, ‘Okay.’ I followed that by asking what support he could use from the rest of the board in assuming that role. That way he got to sort out for himself what he needed in order to do the job, and he got some appreciation from other members for accepting the ‘tap on the shoulder.’”

“So the direct ask I think worked well to set us up to depend upon each other and act as one voice. We’ve developed a culture of leadership on the board, where members now expect both to lead and to support and follow the leadership of others. For the last two weeks I’ve been on the road for work so I could not really effectively lead the board at a time when critical legal work had to be completed, so I asked someone to please play that role and she did well, and I was not at all worried. I would say that as a board, we worked great together in this month where we had to negotiate through lots of tricky territory in order to not lose seriously important relationships that are assets to the organization. And I don’t think we lost any.”

Shelly Willingham on Engagement

Although he has a good deal of experience in the corporate sector, Shelly Willingham is a political animal, as he says “by nature and by choice,” serving at various times on the school board, as county commissioner, and in the state legislature. He says that he was always active in issues that affected people in the community, going all the way back to high school and when he served as a Vista Volunteer. “I guess that’s who I am, a person who gets involved.”

Shelly talks about the importance of recruiting people to the board who are informed and concerned about the mission and the organization’s long-term viability. He recounted two very telling examples that emphasized the importance of engagement. In the first example, he shared a recent experience he had in closing out an organization that could not pull a consistent board together. “I told the executive director if we couldn’t get enough people together at one time to take the responsibility to say, ‘let’s do this as an organized group, we were fighting a losing battle.’ What I found interesting was that if something large happened in the community we could easily pull together almost two hundred people but out of that two hundred we couldn’t get twelve who would commit to serve on the board.”

Shelly contrasts this to a board on which he is currently serving as chair. He says that he is particularly “drawn to boards that really need help; boards that need a push in the right direction to turn around and be successful. I kept telling the executive director, ‘There’s an old saying that if you keep throwing spitballs against the wall, one of them is going to stick.’ One finally stuck, meaning, we have worked and sacrificed and now the organization is moving in the right direction. It is this kind of success that keeps me active with other organizations on whose boards I serve. I’ve seen other organizations go to the brink of disaster and come back strong. What is different in this case is that we were able to recruit dedicated people to serve on the board. We have dedicated volunteers who feel strongly about the organization’s mission and what they are doing. They sacrifice their time and resources and are ready to do what is necessary to make the organization successful. Unfortunately, we were unable to secure the community support with the other organization. From a chair’s point of view, having a dedicated board with active members makes serving as chair a pleasant experience.”

Shelly, similar to most of the other chairs, does not feel there should be a big difference between a member and a board chair, yet argues the chair has primary responsibility for effectively engaging the membership. “I think part of my job is to encourage active participation of all board members. I believe it is my responsibility to raise the level of expectation for board members and the organization as a whole. I want board members to understand they have a responsibility when they agree to serve. I try to remind folks of this in a gentle way.”

Laura Waterman Wittstock on Representation

Laura Waterman Wittstock started her board work in the mid-70s in Minneapolis, where she says she was called to be on boards as part of what she refers to as “a germination of new nonprofit start-ups that were high in vision and low in resources.” Many of these were diverse, community-based boards seeking members who could bring fresh views to the decision-making process. “And as in my own case, American Indians felt that they had to get themselves to the table.”

Among other things, Laura has since committed herself to sitting on a number of philanthropic boards such as the Minneapolis Foundation where she learned it is as much the responsibility of community philanthropy to raise funds as it is to give out grants. Joining the development side of the volunteer work, she learned a great deal about donors and their motivations. Nearly twenty years earlier, Laura’s motivation to serve on boards that value community voice and participation drew her to the local Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) board. CCHD is a fund within the Catholic Church that gives out grants for anti-poverty and social justice work. “Even though I am not a Catholic or even a Christian, I was asked onto the board and wound up chairing it in the early 1980s. It was a very good experience.”

Right now Laura is chairing the Park Nicollet Institute, the nonprofit arm of a very large medical institution. The institute board that she sits on deals with research, education, and looking at new ways of delivering better healthcare. Not a physician or medical researcher herself, Laura says that she would not normally have thought about being on a board like that, but because Park Nicollet’s tradition is to always have a chair who is from the community, Laura again finds herself engaged with a board that values diverse participation and a continuing connection to the community.

Janet Thompson on Commitment

Janet has been involved with boards since her early twenties. “Maybe my second or third job out of college, I served on the board of a youth serving organization in White Plains. I was then working for the YWCA as the teenage program director and was invited to sit on the board of another agency in the city, and so that was where it began. I did it because somebody asked me to do it, which may be why we do most things.” Although this may be why some folks join boards, throughout our discussion with Janet, we got a good sense for how important it is to have a board chair who is committed to the mission.

She recalled an early board chair experience with a nonprofit ballet company. “I was brought in as the chair, which tells you a lot about the condition of the board if they weren’t developing their own leadership … you know how sometimes you just never feel like the skin fits? That was true of that one. Partly because, while I had ballet lessons as a child, I’m certainly not a cultural guru and I never felt comfortable about my knowledge base with regard to the program.”

Over much of the last 10 years, however, Janet’s board service has been dominated by her own keen interest in alternative financial institutions, emerging out of her work at Citibank. She believes that she can bring full value to those institutions because she knows the field well. She serves on the boards of a several of nonprofit finance organizations, and chairs the ACCION New York board and the board of the national Nonprofit Finance Fund. Most of her experience becoming chair has related to becoming involved in the work of the organization through board service, and then just becoming more and more dedicated. Janet maintains that people recognize her commitment by asking her to chair the board. “People are always like, ‘Well, gee, this person is so enthusiastic, and interested and knowledgeable, we should ask her to be the chair.’”

Bruce Fisher on CEO Evaluation

Bruce Fisher both chairs a human services collaborative and is the executive director of a single human services organization. Following is what he had to add from his unique dual perspective. In this case, he is talking about his experience as executive director of Huckleberry Youth Programs.

“How do you know the ED is relevant and doing the kind of job that let’s assume 10 years ago they were recognized throughout the community for? The only way you can do that, and this board has done that somewhat, is a pretty thorough evaluation. Take the evaluation seriously. Most boards, especially with an executive director that has been there a long time, are reluctant to do a really thorough, tight, and comprehensive evaluation because there is probably a complex relationship in play. So they end up with something like: ‘Well, the person’s been here so long so it must be fine, so why don’t we just do a perfunctory review and get on with setting the salary.’ This is not good practice and can lead to disasters that have repercussions far beyond the four walls of that particular organization.”

“Instead, to get a sense of the pulse of the organization, there should be confidential and, if necessary, anonymous evaluations by direct reports, from a selection of line staff throughout the agency, and then by a collection of individuals in the community in which that agency works. We’ve done that in the past. We don’t do it regularly but we’re about to do it again. So I’d say almost every four years. So the ED might identify some people in the community that they should meet with, but the board evaluation committee should on their own go around to identify some other key players in the community and then just get some feedback.”

University of the World

Why do people serve in this voluntary position? We go back to Laura Waterman Wittstock for a final thought. “Board work is like free learning. It is the university of the world.” She continues, “[I am] deeply engaged in the question of social justice and how that plays out through the historical events that happen and the general ups and downs of the nonprofit world itself, which I find enormously interesting and full of people who mean to change the world or some part of it. And so I want to be part of that club. But the major reward is the idea of moving the work of social justice forward through the missions of these organizations. That’s what’s so exciting”