Board Leadership: The Difficulties of Being Board President

December 4, 2014


Believe it or not, not every board member wants to rise to board president. Sometimes the reluctance is even extreme.

A recent voicemail from an outgoing board president reflected a directive from her board: Can we find someone the organization could hire to be board president?

Laura Otten
Laura Otten

While this board’s proposed solution is one I had never heard before, the situation that prompted it is nothing new. Too few board members are willing to take on the leadership responsibilities of being an officer or committee chair.

And while folks like myself write often about how to get “the board as a whole” to do its job, there is little written about how we get the individual parts — each board member — to do his or her job.

I am not suggesting for a second that if we sum up the work of board members fulfilling their individual responsibilities that we get the equal of a whole board fulfilling its collective responsibilities, but it just might be a start.

Let’s examine the potential link between no one wanting to be board president and not enough people fulfilling their individual responsibilities.

Consider this basic and common complaint I hear often from board presidents (and executive directors): No one responds to anything!

Send out an email that either begs a response or explicitly solicits one, and you get nothing; leave a voicemail that, again, explicitly or implicitly entreats an answer, and nothing comes back. And yet, one of the key individual responsibilities is to perform professionally when undertaking the job of board member. Failure to respond is nowhere in the book of best practices for professionals — of any kind.

No one signs on to be board president because s/he loves hounding and/or haranguing people; no one agrees to be board president because they love herding cats, yet too many board presidents spend too much time doing just that.

No wonder noone wants to be president! Those who act professionally also come to meetings prepared and ready to participate, yet according to Leading with Intent 2014: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, only 36 percent of executive directors surveyed say their board members come prepared for meetings and only 19 percent strongly agree that board members are engaged.

If individual board members did a better job at being a board member who acts with professionalism — and responds to the queries of the board president as s/he would a query from the boss, for example — the job of board president wouldn’t be quite so unappealing.

Another individual responsibility of board members is to be an ambassador for the organization. A nation’s ambassadors freely and comfortably speak about and on behalf of that nation, spreading the good word of the country; they gladly represent their nation at those events where it should be present, from a social gathering to a meeting of leaders to a ribbon cutting to a funeral. And they do so with confidence, graciousness and good will.

Ambassadors also collect information as they are out and about, and bring back important data that helps to inform a country’s strategy and decision making. When board members shirk this ambassadorial responsibility, the role of volunteer, organization representative [which sends a very different message than does a paid (staff) organization representative] falls to the board president — 100 percent of the time!

Yes, there are some times where the presence of the board president is “required,” but they are few and far between. Most just need a volunteer presence. Having ambassadorial bench strength lightens the job of board president (and sends a very positive message to stakeholders).

One of the legal standards to which every board member must adhere is to always put the best interests of the organization ahead of personal interests.  In other words, board members should never bring a personal agenda with them to their board service — and, yet, too many do.

This lack of professional, not to mention legal, behavior places an undue burden on the board president. Either he ignores the obvious and tries to maneuver around its manifestations in board meetings and other loci, or he does the uncomfortable act of confronting the board member and advising the member to either shape up or resign from the board.

Board members who understand their individual responsibilities as a board member before coming onto a board can make the job of board president much less onerous and undesirable. No one joins a board or assumes the position of board president because s/he loves dealing with obstreperous people!

The good board presidents do carry the weight of the organization on their shoulders, but most love sharing that weight with others.

For example, it is every individual board member’s responsibility to understand the financial reports of the organization. This is not a job just for the treasurer and board president. We need all of the brains of the board focused on this most important resource.

Additionally, it is not just the board president’s responsibility to volunteer her/his expertise to management when asked, but every board member’s responsibility. That is one of the values of having a diverse board; there is a variety of skills and talents that can be tapped by management for guidance through difficult situations or opening doors, when needed, as examples. Nor is it only the president’s responsibility to be prepared for meetings and the discussions at hand, though it is her/his responsibility to facilitate those discussions.

The ability to facilitate, however, is dependent upon individual participation, and, according to Leading with Intent, board presidents don’t see a great degree of participation.

Contributing to the hesitancy to take on the presidency position is that it carries no more power than that of a “regular” board member; it just has a lot more responsibility. But that extra responsibility is not supposed to be doing the jobs that the other board members aren’t doing.

Rather it is the additional responsibilities just of being president — convening meetings, setting agenda, diffusing tensions on the board, being the official voice, etc. Who would want a position where one person is expected to do the jobs of 12?

The really sad part in all of this is that not just any body will do as board president. While it may be possible to get away, for a limited time, anyway, with just “any bodies” warming a board seat, (or hiring someone for the task), what fills the board president position — by which I mean the skills, talents, personality, and understanding about the role and responsibility of board president — is absolutely crucial.

The person assuming the presidency can make or break a board, and help or hinder the progress of an organization. Thus, we want to make this a position that people don’t run from, but rather gravitate towards.

Shifting this dynamic starts with 100 percent of board members fulfilling the individual responsibilities they signed on for when they joined.

 Laura Otten is Executive Director at The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University. She is also a faculty member of the Dodge Technical Assistance Initiative. Find out more about our nonprofit capacity building workshops here.