Reflections, stories & ideas on non-profit leadership.

Board secretary: superpowers revealed

Many people are familiar with the idea of the secretary on a non-profit board. However, ideas about what role the secretary plays, even to those who serve on boards, probably does not go much beyond them taking minutes and sending out meeting notices.

While the board secretary is usually a most appreciated volunteer, the power of the position for good is almost always under-utilized. The board secretary can be a real force for improving non-profit governance.  So, what is involved in taking the role to greater heights? What is the nature of their powers?

What follows is a primer for board secretaries themselves, as well for the boards they serve on. It is accompanied by three resources: a Guide for Non-Profit Board Secretaries, A Guide To Great Board Minutes and Board Secretary Job Description This post offers some food for thought on the possible scope of the job and the qualifications that may be needed to do it well. You might be surprised.

I have been a board secretary myself and have watched others serve in the role. I have come to believe that the potential power of the secretary, power stemming from their unique vantage around the board table can be a key force for good non-profit governance.1)Michael Daigneault, states, in his 2004 concept paper that the secretary should be seen as the chief governance officer, a role that encompasses being the steward of the boards’ governance processes. See  “The nonprofit board secretary: A New Role -A Concept Paper”. The Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership, University of Missouri – Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri

A mostly secret life

Little has been written about the responsibilities or the role of secretary, or indeed the skills and attributes needed to fulfill it. Perhaps it is the tendency, as with other board positions, to assume that the job is understood merely by its title, or that those involved will figure it out in due course.

Yes, the work of the board secretary centres around taking board meeting minutes. Some boards go further and add to the role the responsibility of notifying board members of meetings, sending out board meeting materials, being the recipient of meeting regrets and keeping track of director terms. This work is important for sure, but not extraordinary.

The role of board secretary may depend on whether one’s organization is managed by volunteers or by staff. Smaller groups depend on the board secretary to be the primary keeper and manager of key legal documents. Where the organization has full time staff and a place of business, some of these secretarial responsibilities will reside with the organization.

Secretarial sidekicks

A sidekick is one who is a close companion of, but subordinate to the hero. The secretary is not, in my view, the sidekick to the board chair. They can be an effective team working together, and their roles can sometimes overlap, but they have different strengths.

There are situations where nonprofit boards combine the roles of secretary and treasurer, or assign the minute taking to a “recording secretary”, a staff person or a volunteer who is not a director. These are sidekicks. Both responses could suggest difficulty with board recruitment; the latter could also signal an lack of understanding of the potential of this work being done by a director.

Some large non-profits, universities with boards of governors for example, have staff whose responsibilities include board governance support, much of it secretarial in nature. This approach certainly has merits but it may not allow much room for the job holder to break free of functionary confines to take on a more powerful role.

It is also common for some grass roots organizations to share board work by rotating board leadership roles, including the taking of meeting notes. My guess is that this response fails in providing continuity and more importantly here, enabling the power for good to develop.

Mortal beings

A super board secretary need not be from another planet or epoch. The secretary’s powers are neither inherited, bestowed or the result of an experiment gone awry. The powers are ones that only need articulation, encouragement and development. 

A board secretary probably needs to be a person who, at heart, is motivated to instill order in the face of chaos, especially where the chaos is not readily apparent to others. One would hope they show up in the role with board experience and more than a little curiosity about how organizations and groups work. It might not hurt too if they were capable of being tenacious and persistent.

It might be thought that the board secretary’s alter ego is someone who is more of an introvert than an extrovert. Possibly, but boards do not want anyone sitting in silence and an active secretary will have some things about the governance process he/she really needs to speak up about. The secretary is also a director in every other sense and his/her opinion on content or mission-related matters deserves equal weight to that of other members.

But, if the latent powers of the secretary are to be unleashed, what are they?

The power of vantage point

The power of the board secretary for good is first tied to appreciating and cultivating the vantage point or perspective that the role inhabits in meetings and outside of meetings.

A vantage point is not so much a point of view, as a view from a point. It is “a position or place that affords a wide or advantageous perspective”2)Dictionary.comor a “wide or favourable overall view of a scene or situation.3)Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition Mark Galher, an Australian photographer says: “A carefully chosen viewpoint or ‘vantage point’ can often reveal the subject as familiar and yet strange”. Perspective, he suggests “encourages (one) to look more closely and from all or (from)….fresh ….angles (that will reveal) something new.”4)Mark Galer, The Importance of Vantage Point, Blog Post, 17/08/2015

The power of observation

In science certainly, and in literature if the character of Sherlock Holmes counts, the power of observing over seeing is often touted. Observing requires a conscious process of noticing; mindfulness if you like. It is seeing with a larger field of view and the ability to discern key features. It is the senses and the mind working together.5)See for example: Brain Pickings: The Art of Observation and Why Genius Lies in the Selection of What Is Worth Observing by Maria Popova

The secretary really is the primary observer of governance work, at board meeting certainly, and in his/her other secretarial interactions with directors. The art of observation is to see, watch, perceive, give attention to and take note of. It is also the act of distancing, or stepping back, figuratively speaking, and re-engaging. And observing is noticing and trying to making sense of without judgement.

 The power of documentation

The power of documentation comes from the ability to help make group thinking, learning and collaboration visible.6)The value of documenting learning is much discussed in the field of early childhood education. This includes the value of pedagogical documentation or what is referred to as the Reggio Approach The secretary is the one who has to grapple with describing how the board functions, how board- executive director interactions manifest itself, what they work on, how they decide and what group memory is employed. The secretary may be the first to discern whether the board is crossing a bridge it has crossed before, a new one they are unaware of, or are on a path they have chosen to take. 

The act of documenting the work of governance in meetings can be a powerful tool for more self conscious non-profit leadership. The act of taking minutes, deciding what gets recorded and what does not, should not be an invisible one. The most important part of taking minutes is not so much the writing as it the questioning that, in key circumstances, goes with it. What should I record here? I am not clear on what was decided. Whose job is it to take action?

The power of intervention

Board secretaries have the power to intervene, to “nudge” the group towards awareness of their pattern of group behaviour. Interventions are a tool employed by experienced group facilitators and mediators.

Communication’s theorists identify “attention interventions” as the effort of an actor to point out anomalies or inconsistencies in a group conversation or draw attention to other possible directions that might be taken.7)The idea of interventions, especially in the context of therapeutic practice and social psychology is based on the work of communication theorist William R. Brown. Brown distinguished between attention interventions, power interventions, need interventions and system interventions. There is a 2009 book by on the topic by Susan K Opt and Mark A Gring The Rhetoric Of Social Intervention: An Introduction published by Sage. The Wikipedia piece on the “Rhetoric of Social Intervention Model” may be helpful If the board chair helps move the group forward, the secretary is the one who often holds it back, reflective moments being essential some of the time.

Th secretary’s work is obviously not so much on the content of the issues around the board table as on the process of governance itself. Secretarial interventions will include probing, questionning and reminding the board when there is a need to:

  • Share what he/she has just noticed
  • Clarify or resolve differences
  • Bring the group back to a point made earlier but forgotten or ignored
  • Summarize the more salient points in an important discussion
  • Synthesize or connecting points to create a shared perspective
  • Decide on a clearer course of action
  • Reflect the feelings present

Some of these actions, of course, may come from the board chair. It is often more difficult for the chair to operate in the moment with larger view. The chair and secretary, at times certainly, may want to prepare for a board meeting together.

Don Your Cape

Good governance can benefit from a more activist board secretary, stewards of the organization’s aspirations to learn and to make wise decisions.

If you are a board secretary you could start by using a power or two quietly where its seem needed. The secretarial resources on this website can perhaps create some added clarity around your functional duties so that you feel free to let your full potential more easily emerge.

Are a board chair and want a secretary that is more clearly your partner in good governance? Invite the person to meet over a coffee. What do you both think about the potential of the role? How can the two of you work more closely together?

The idea that board might initiate a conversation about the role and expectations of its secretary may not seem radical one, but in practice it is. How lovely it would be for a board to embrace the superpower potential of their secretary.

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Featured image: This is a picture from the Do It For Charity Superhero Run, an event in London, England that is now its 8th year.

References   [ + ]

1. Michael Daigneault, states, in his 2004 concept paper that the secretary should be seen as the chief governance officer, a role that encompasses being the steward of the boards’ governance processes. See  “The nonprofit board secretary: A New Role -A Concept Paper”. The Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership, University of Missouri – Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri
2. Dictionary.com
3. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
4. Mark Galer, The Importance of Vantage Point, Blog Post, 17/08/2015
5. See for example: Brain Pickings: The Art of Observation and Why Genius Lies in the Selection of What Is Worth Observing by Maria Popova
6. The value of documenting learning is much discussed in the field of early childhood education. This includes the value of pedagogical documentation or what is referred to as the Reggio Approach
7. The idea of interventions, especially in the context of therapeutic practice and social psychology is based on the work of communication theorist William R. Brown. Brown distinguished between attention interventions, power interventions, need interventions and system interventions. There is a 2009 book by on the topic by Susan K Opt and Mark A Gring The Rhetoric Of Social Intervention: An Introduction published by Sage. The Wikipedia piece on the “Rhetoric of Social Intervention Model” may be helpful
Grant MacDonald

Written by Grant MacDonald

Grant MacDonald is a former Associate Professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. For more than two decades, Grant has provided workshops, courses and print resources to a variety of small and medium sized non-profit organizations. Helping volunteer boards and executive directors to govern with purpose, passion, intellect and humour continues to engage and challenge him.

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