How to be the best Chairperson you can be

If you’ve ever thought of becoming Chair of an arts organisation, Kate Larsen has tips to be an effective leader.
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The Iron Throne from HBO’s Game of Thrones. (c) Home Box Office Inc 2011.

In my work supporting not-for-profit clients, I’m often asked about the role of the Board (and the Chairperson in particular) in supporting their organisations. What are the most important things for a Chair to remember? What are the things they most often get wrong?

So here’s my cheatsheet on ‘How to be the best Chairperson you can be’ (which may be helpful for other Board or Committee members too):

Look after your CEO

Taking care of your CEO is a vital part of a Chairperson’s role, but one that often gets forgotten. Here’s how I suggest you take care of them:

  • Be available. Be present. Make time for regular formal and informal catch ups.
  • Monitor their targets. There shouldn’t be any surprises when the time comes for the CEOs annual review.
  • Monitor their wellbeing. Take stress seriously. Act on it.
  • Write all down. Emailing a summary of each catch up in dot-points is all it takes to protect both your organisation and its CEO.

Minimise servicing of the Board

Servicing a Board is a project in itself. It’s an important one. But the more time it takes, the less time the staff have available to spend on the organisation’s key purpose or programs.

Did you know most not-for-profit Boards meet more than necessary? Reducing the number of meetings can be good for your Board members (and help you attract new ones) as well as helping reduce the workload for staff. You could also try:

  • Reducing the size and number of reports you require at meetings.
  • Working out the minimum the Board requires to do its job.

Kate Larsen is a former CEO/Director of Writers Victoria. Image supplied.

Stay in your lane

People often join Boards and Committees because they’re passionate about the work of the organisation, so it’s understandable that they’re more interested in the program or delivery than strategic plans or finances. But your job is governance and oversight, not operations. It’s important to stay in your lane.

Run a good meeting

Nobody wants to volunteer to spend their time at bad Board meetings. Make your meetings fast, focused and to the point.

Remember, the Board doesn’t need to know every detail of the program, it needs to know if/how/why not that program is meeting the organisation’s strategic goals and budget.

Run a good board

Have clear expectations of Board members and make sure they know what they’re supposed to be doing. Here are two tips for running a productive Board:

  • Set up subcommittees and keep them on task.
  • Ask yourself (and your Board members): what have you done for the organisation today?

Maximise support from the Board

Sometimes, the organisation will need more from Board members than governance and oversight. Know and use your Board members’ skills to benefit the organisation through the provision of free, expert advice.

You should make sure requests are initiated by the CEO (not imposed) and seen as discrete volunteering interventions (not an ongoing invitation to Board members to step outside their lane).

Be an ambassador

To be an ambassador for the organisation, all of your Board or Committee members should:

  • Attend events run by the organisation. Be present. Be visible. Talk to the team. Show your support.
  • Represent the organisation at other events. Make sure you have business cards with you at all times (either for the organisation’s CEO or a generic Board member card).
  • Make sure you inform yourself first. Who are the organisation’s existing funders/partners? In which areas/industries is the organisation hoping to grow?
  • Use your existing networks and help create new ones.

Remember, you’re not helping the organisation, you are the organisation. Talk about it as ‘us’, not ‘them’.

Show (the organisation) the money

There’s an old maxim for Board members: get, give or get off.

  • The get: Make sure you know what the organisation’s key priorities or funding needs. Help find and approach potential funders and partners. Leverage your own networks. Spread the word on social media about fundraising drives or End of Financial Year campaigns. Invite your high-net-worth contacts to organisation events.
  • The give: Do you have a Board Giving Policy? How can you approach potential donors if you’re not willing to be one yourself? (Remember, no-one needs to know how much you give. Donations as small as $2 are tax deductible, and seeing your name as a donor in the Annual Report may encourage others to give too).

Try to focus on unencumbered funds. Money that isn’t tied to specific activities or staff resources is a rare and precious thing – and the best way for Board members to help raise funds while still staying in their lane.

A version of this post originally appeared on Kate Larsen’s website as How to be the best Chair you can be.

Kate Larsen
About the Author
Kate Larsen is a Non-Profit and Cultural consultant, arts manager and writer with more than 20 years’ experience in the non-profit, government and arts sectors in Australia, Asia and the UK. She is a former Director of Writers Victoria, Co-Convenor of the Arts Industry Council of Victoria and CEO of Arts Access Australia.