E. C. Dorsey wrote a short piece for the National Center for Nonprofit Boards regarding “The Role of the Board Chairperson” (1992). While a bit dated at this point, this twenty page pamphlet offers a succinct overview of the role of a board chairperson in a nonprofit society and has something to offer those who fill such a role within the context of a church board.
Dorsey, former chairperson of Independent Sector, a coalition of 850 foundations, nonprofit organizations and corporations, also served as the president of the Gannett Foundation. His experience also included a contribution as a member of the board of Family Service America and the national boards of seven Prudential Mutual Funds. So he speaks into this question of the role of a board chairperson in a nonprofit context with some history, experience, and competence. However, his viewpoint is very broad and some adaptation to the congregational setting is needed.
In his pamphlet Dorsey deals with three major questions:
1. Principles of Effective Performance for Leadership
In his understanding the components of the chairperson’s role include: building participation primarily within the board, acquiring and communicating information, evaluating performance, and the art of delegation.
2. Personal Characteristics of an Able Chairperson
Although not every chairperson will possess these characteristics to the same degree, it is his perception that chairpersons must have vision for the organization, detachment, impartiality, and care for the organization, staff and the people it serves.
3. Applying the Principles.
Dorsey argues that some situations are common to the experience of all chairpersons and these include relationships with the board and the CEO, a role in fundraising, a public relations role, evaluating the board and the CEO (and this includes succession planning), overseeing the nominating process, conducting meetings and factors contributing to success. He also touches on the questions of the length of term for a chairperson and how the size of the organization affects the chairperson’s role.
In his conclusion he summarizes that “Chairperson [sic] is Leadership” and a brief outline of the “Responsibilities of the Board Chairperson.” The bottom-line for Dorsey is that a chairperson is a leader, one who makes a difference in the organization he or she serves.
Dorsey affirms at the very beginning that “the chairperson governs the board of directors or trustees, and the board governs the agency” (p. 1). I do not think that most nonprofit boards today would agree with this perspective. It is true that the chairperson guides the board in policy development, but this is a collaborative process. The chairperson serves the board as the board defines and within the limits of authority that the board outlines. Although Dorsey expects a chairperson to evaluate the board and lead in the evaluation of the CEO, he does not at any point discuss the evaluation of the chairperson, apart from self-evaluation. I think this is a weakness in his approach. As the servant of the board the chair should be evaluated by the board in a consistent, timely manner.
Dorsey is right to call attention to the amount of work that good chairing requires. Individuals should not embrace the role if they are not prepared to give the effort required to advance the organization. He emphasizes that the chairperson and the CEO have to understand and appreciate each others’ roles in the nonprofit entity. The chairperson is “the chief volunteer officer” who assists the board to fulfill its responsibilities. The board is the final arbiter in discerning how it will operate.
I appreciated Dorsey’s identification of vision and impartiality as primary characteristics essential to effective chairing. Too often chairperson’s do not take some ownership on behalf of the board for helping the board to advance the mission and achieve the vision. I am convinced that the board collectively on its own, without effective direction, does not have the operational capacity to advance the mission. Without such direction (offered within the limitations defined by the board) boards become hostage to the loudest voice, regardless of what may be good for the mission. Impartiality is equally significant for effective chairing. Chairpersons have to rise above personal inclinations or pet-projects in order to help the board achieve the best decisions for the good of the nonprofit agency. However, when Dorsey indicates that chairperson should “come to very firm conclusion and take it to the board after hearing all sides of an issue,” this suggests a role for the chair that in my view goes beyond appropriate boundaries. In my view the chairperson assists the board “come to very firm conclusion” based upon good information and open, robust discussion.
The collection and distribution of information occupies a key place in a chairperson’s responsibilities. Withholding information is manipulative and harmful. “The chairperson must develop the confidence of the board, membership, and executive director through open, honest and honorable dealings.” This is related to the development of good communication skills within the board and also in terms of representing the organization publicly.
Dorsey also notes that sometimes the chairperson has to work with the board to make tough decisions and then communicate them to the appropriate parties. The chair may have to convey to the CEO a decision by the board to replace him or her. Or there may be times when finances no longer are sufficient to sustain the operation and changes must be made. “While there is special recognition and special rights for the chairperson, there are special responsibilities too. Not all of them are pleasant,…”
Some of the things that Dorsey considers important for success in this role include developing the skills necessary to lead, constantly improving performance, being creative and innovative, putting the interests of the organization ahead of your own, and enjoying what you do.
He concludes with a summary of chairperson responsibilities and a brief, annotated bibliography.
I am not sure I would purchase a copy of Dorsey’s publication at this point, but it does offer a basic outline of chairing responsibilities in nonprofit contexts that still has value.