We need to talk about chairs

A new video resource is available to help NFP chairs improve the performance of their boards.

By Jo Cribb MInstD
27 May 2021
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2 min to read
Papers on a desk with pen

We need to talk about chairs.

In the community sector alone, there are more than 115,000 of us. And our competency and capacity can have a marked impact on board and organisational performance.

We have all left a community committee meeting that has run over time frustrated about those wasted hours we will never get back.

Research quantifies our experiences. Poorly run meetings confuse all involved and result in board members becoming disengaged . Meetings focus on management issues at the expense of strategy. Action points are not followed up.

Poor chairing can lead to strained or broken relationships between board members and the board and staff.

The chair sets the pace

Getting board meetings right it is a critical role for the chair given it is in these meetings that most of our governance function is executed.

Chairs set the agenda and are responsible for guiding the meeting to clear outcomes for management to carry out. The chair should invite all possible views on an issue and then work to a consensus decision between board members but may have to be the final arbiter if needed. The chair should ensure all decisions are understood and recorded.

But the role does not stop at setting an agenda and keeping to time. The chair needs to make regular assessments of board capability and support board members to be effective.

The chair will be visible to stakeholders, especially funders and the community the organisation seeks to support and will need to front in time of crises and complaints. As well as providing that critical link between governance and management.

But it is a difficult and often lonely role; one many of us did not sign up for when we joined the board or committee.

Once in the role, many of us are unprepared for the number of hours and demands. Our capacity to chair can become an issue, especially in times of crisis and change.

The need to get our heads around all facets of governance: risk, compliance, constitution, AGMs, constant emails from members, managing conflicting views of board members, the demands of funders: being the chair can get quickly overwhelming, especially as, for most of us, this is a volunteer role.

As part of the National Action Plan for Community Governance, we asked 30 experienced Community Sector chairs what they wished they knew before they stepped into the role.

They wished they had an inkling of: the extra time commitment required between meetings (up to two or three times that of a board member); how important developing a strong but critical relationship with the chief executive was; how to support their board to understand the difference between governance and management when board members wore both hats in the organisation; how to chair good meetings; and build a team from a group of passionate volunteers with varying degrees of governance experience.

They were also clear there is little support available for chairs and that they often felt on their own and out of their depth.

As one action to support chairs of community organisations, last month a series of four videos, “Chairing the Board”, was launched as part of the National Action Plan for Community Governance.

These are based on what the experienced chairs told us would have been most useful for them with a focus on practical advice, relatable spokespeople and pragmatic tips.

Board chairs share their experience (the good, bad and ugly), technical experts provide useful commentary and each video ends with key ‘’takeaways’’ and links to more resources. The Institute of Directors Not-for-Profit Hub is included as an important link here.

The videos aim to support aspiring chairs to step up into the role with more confidence, and for current chairs to reflect on their practice.

Ultimately, given the important role community organisations play in our communities, we will all benefit when all community organisations in Aotearoa/New Zealand are well chaired.

For more information about the National Strategy for Community Governance, contact the programme manager Rose Hiha.

Also see Chairing the board - video resource for community organisations.

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