Do your board leaders have too much responsibility?

In the P.C. (pre-Covid) year of 2018,  a team* of consultants, members of  the Alliance for Nonprofit Management  Governance Community of Practice set out to learn more about the formal leaders of nonprofit boards. We assigned the phrase board leaders to refer to officers and committee chairs.

three bowls with signs from the fairy tale Goldilocks

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Who responded?

Through the magic of survey monkey and a process called snowball sampling, we heard from 398 leaders of boards of local, regional and national organizations. They came from 35 US states and about two dozen from across Canada.

Of these respondents:

  • 216 chairs were board chairs, 36 of whom were co-chairs.
  • 78 were vice chairs and 31 described themselves as chair-elects.
  • 69 were board secretaries (also known as a clerk in some states)
  • 35 were treasurers.
  • 51% indicated they held positions as committee chairs, some of which overlapped with their officer positions.

How hard is it to recruit board leaders?

While we asked many questions, I wanted to zero in on what we heard about job size.

This might sound very familiar: 75% of the leaders answering the survey said that it was at least somewhat challenging to recruit the formal leaders of their boards with 28% reporting that it was very or extremely challenging to recruit these leaders.

So what are the barriers to choosing to step up to board leadership?

  • Overwhelming: time.  75% of respondents chose this answer.
  • Next on the list, selected by half of the respondents,  too much responsibility.

Farther down were lack of knowledge, lack of experience and just not wanting to step up.

The Goldilocks question: Too big, too little or just right?

So, in thinking about the perceived barriers of time and responsibility, I expected that we’d find out that the officer and committee chair jobs themselves were just drawn too large for these board volunteers.

So we asked the questions Goldilocks asked about each position:

  • Is the job too big? (i.e. too much responsibility for any one person?)
  • Is the job too small?
  • Is the job just right?

If I were a betting girl, I would have picked out the board chair job as named as too big or having too much responsibility for any one human.

But instead, 63% said the board chair had the right amount of responsibility, including 67% of the chairs themselves!

To be fair, among all the positions listed, respondents were most likely to pick the board chair as the position with too much responsibility, with 30% answering that way.

Based on my own practice, I just assumed the numbers for too much responsibility would be much higher.

The jobs selected as the most right-sized were committee chair (77%) and treasurer (71%), followed by secretary at 66%, though secretaries themselves were more inclined to say their jobs were just right (72%).

What about Vice Chairs?

Among our team, Mike Burns and I were most interested in the role of the Vice Chair. Personally, I feel that the position of vice chair, like most state lieutenant governors, is a seriously underused leadership position. (see alternative suggestions farther down)

Overall, most board leaders agreed with me. Of the four officers and committee chair positions, less than half (45%) of respondents said the Vice Chair had the right amount of responsibility vs 25% who felt the job had too little (and a whopping 20% just didn’t know what to say).

But when we looked at what vice chairs said about their own jobs, the majority (61%) indicated that their role had the right amount of responsibility (hah!) with only 22% saying they felt they had too little.

But board chairs weren’t buying this. From the perspective of the board chair, 30% felt that their vice chairs had too little responsibility with only 41% feeling their vice had the right amount of work.

So what does this mean?

Like you, my decades of experience have shown me that it is at least somewhat challenging to convince board members to step into leadership – if not extremely so.  And that’s especially true if there is no well-developed leadership grooming system.

As I said, I expected a much larger majority of respondents in our survey to report that their board chairs had too much responsibility for one person.  So why didn’t they?

While I am only speculating, I think that the job of the board chair is expected to be highly time consuming. So, if you’ve witnessed chair after chair working their butts off (no pun intended), you may have come to believe that is expected when you take on the role of board chair.

Either that, board chairs have been pretending they have too much work to scare off rivals! NOT!

Reimagining Officers

Sadly, I don’t think most boards consider that they could restructure jobs and divide up tasks. We learned in our last survey, Voices of Board Chairs, that a top way of learning the chair’s job was to observe the chair already in office.

It’s hard to break tradition. But I’m giving you permission.

I’m of the mind that board leadership doesn’t have to be a full time job, especially that of the board chair. What if we freed officers from traditional job descriptions and norms? Could our boards then develop practices that enable all board members to step up to take on leadership functions?

Here’s an example. I’m  in the camp that most vice chairs have too little to do. (I don’t think of waiting for the board chair to be absent as a real job). So why not send more responsibility the vice chairs way.

Like what, you ask?

  • Vice chairs could be responsible for ensuring well-functioning committees.
  • They could be responsible for strategic planning.
  • Vice chairs could oversee board accountability, including developing annual goals for the board and its committees.
  • Or, you could go all the way to sharing leadership.

The Chair and Vice chair could be co-chairs. And/or they would split their job tasks. One way to split tasks is to have one chair focus on board functioning (internal) and the other focus on community engagement activities (external) such as engaging with donors, being a lead policy advocate, or just being out in the community in a more visible way.

I also suggest that your secretary, another position that seems underused in many organizations, might wear the additional hat of chairing the Governance committee.

Some organizations I’ve encountered have “assistant-” every officer position (like assistant secretary, assistant treasurer), with tasks divided among them. Those assistants are actively groomed and ready to step into leadership when the primary dog’s term is up.

To sum it up

Based on what our board leaders said, they themselves don’t feel they have too much to do. But they do think it’s at least somewhat challenging to fill those leadership roles because others perceive their jobs as taking too much time or having too much responsibility.

So consider evaluating all of your board leadership positions and distributing tasks more evenly among all of your officers and committee chairs.

Wouldn’t you like to have a board filled with leaders? I do. I want fellow board members serving with me who don’t wait to be asked to advance the work of their nonprofit boards. They step up.

If you’ve redesigned your board leadership, I’d love to hear your stories.


* Alliance for Nonprofit Management Board Leadership Research Team 2018: Mike Burns; Ann Cohen; Diane Fletcher, Judy Freiwirth, Gayle L. Gifford, Mary Hiland

Voices of Board Chairs Report

Voice of Board Chairs in Nonprofit Quarterly

What does your Board Treasurer do?


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