The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

The Power Team, Part I: The Head of the Board


The position of head of a nonprofit's external governing body is arguably the most critical leadership role of all. Having served as chairman of the board of a 150-year-old boys' school, a large rehabilitation center, and a foundation, I can speak to the chairman/president of the board position from two sides of that hot spot. Of course, I actually believe the two other leadership jobs that will be addressed in this series, the chief executive officer (CEO) and chief advancement officer (CAO), are a bit hotter, since the expectations for those performers are so high. After all, as a volunteer, the chair of a nonprofit board has less salary to lose if the job is not accomplished.

This is a point I make in jest, but it is true. The ultimate commitment of a loyal volunteer is to agree to sit at the head of the board of trustees and be responsible for seeing to the continuance, improvement, and/or expansion of a nonprofit organization with the altruistic and philanthropic incentives "to do good."

The leadership of the head of the board of trustees is the single position where outside leadership experience can have the most impact. CEOs and other top executives often hold these positions for good reasons. These reasons are not always related to their gift capacity, but that is often an added bonus to the leadership skills these individuals bring to the table.

In the private for-profit industry, the president or top officer has likely already received training and has had experience in leading a team. Whether the business is food production, consulting, or banking, that individual has already had to develop and prove his or her skills to rise to that position.

Additionally, top corporate leaders are conditioned to rely on others for the expertise, knowledge, and skills they lack to accomplish the objectives of the corporation. They routinely hire people who can help. Then they let them. The typical corporate model does not have time to:

  • work with incompetent people,
  • micromanage,
  • try to gather too much information,
  • be indecisive, or
  • be inarticulate when stating goals.
This is where the critical combination takes place. The matching of a strong board chair with a qualified nonprofit CEO can result in the best of all worlds, especially if the CEO will ask, listen, and learn from the board chair's "other experiences."

Likewise, a board head with strong leadership skills can learn from the nonprofit side what the institutional differences are and how to create a working model for the CEO, CAO, and board head that is stronger than any one of these positions. It is the combining of these individuals and their skills in mutually supportive ways that makes the critical difference between success and failure for the nonprofits they lead.

Bob Carter, Ketchum
© 2006, Ketchum

Having engaged with more than 11,000 clients since its founding in 1919, Ketchum is the nation's leading fundraising counseling firm to nonprofits. Bob Carter is president of Ketchum and leads the firm's sales and marketing teams. He also provides senior-level development, management, and campaign counsel to a broad cross section of gift-supported organizations. You can reach Bob at  contactcarter@viscern.com.
Topics: Senior Executive Issues