Reflections, stories & ideas on non-profit leadership.

Co-chairs considered

The idea of a having a board chair and vice-chair will be a familiar one to most. Lots has been written about the role of the chair and the characteristics of effective chairs has been well researched. Very little has been written about the role of vice-chairs. But are there any other board leadership options?

I recently served as the co-chair of a non-profit board in my community and it was an excellent partnership. What made it work? I could not find any good practice advice on the role and responsibilities of such a position. So I here is some based on my experience.

Online sources occasionally reveal co-chair appointments or announcements of multiple vice-chairs. Such positions are often part of the structure of bodies whose deliberations are in the public eye or represent an international membership. One can find examples such as the European Parliament, the Human Rights Tribunal of the Province of Ontario or the Democratic Party’s Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in the U.S.A. The term vice-chair has replaced vice-president for many public or quasi-public bodies. It is a way to acknowledge the need for a balanced or representative approach to leadership.

But what about your local non-profit?

Vice Chair

Typically a a board vice-chair is a volunteer who is the designated successor to the chair, and/or the chair’s back-up. These are both good reasons for a vice-chair. U.S. consultant Mike Burns wrote in a post on the Charity Channel Press blog, that the vice-chair is “as close as many boards get to succession planning”1)See Mike Burns, Nonprofit Board Vice Chair: Doing it Right, January 2014

Often a board will have a designated vice-chair because their by-laws specify they should have one or their formal reporting requirements provide a space to fill in the vice-chairs name  The practice of having a nominal vice-chair is not a good practice, especially if one believes that every board member should have specific responsibilities outside of attending board meetings. The same can be said for a nominal secretary or treasurer.

I have seen board chair job descriptions that assign special duties to the vice-chair such as serving as chair of a specific standing committee. Board recruitment is a common assignment. This is a great idea since being a “chair in waiting” is not much of a role by itself.

Why consider co-chairs?

Non-profits of all kinds might consider co-chairs rather than having a chair and a vice chair. The rationale for this approach is not to divide a modest set of responsibilities into two smaller jobs as appealing as this might be to recruiting. The opportunity here is to create a two person team who can take on a bigger governance role.

A co-chairing example

I was on the board of an environmental organization for nearly 10 years, first in the role of secretary, and then co-chair, with a two year break in between. This was, and is, a moderately large activist non-profit with an annual budget of more than $2 million and 30 or more people on staff. They have long relied on a board co-chair structure .

My experience as a co-chair in this situation was rooted in the following established practices:

  1. The board usually sought a male and female co-chair team.
  2. The co-chair terms, as with other directors, were two years with one additional two-year extension
  3. The co-chairs had staggered board terms so that their joint efforts overlapped by at least a year 
  4. The co-chairs were usually recruited to the positions from outside the board but not outside the membership
  5. The co-chairs usually attended both board and executive meetings and took turns leading the agenda planning and the chairing of each group.

I had the pleasure of serving with two co-chairs and in both cases we endeavoured to meet for coffee or lunch a half dozen times a year. This provided a great opportunity to create and update our working partnership agenda.

Advantages of board co-chairs

I think the role of chairing is much more important to effective governance than the work of managing board meetings alone requires. A co-chairing arrangement offers:

  • An added focus on governance practices
  • A second perspective on managing the board
  • An opportunity for some diversity in a key leadership role
  • A more manageable work load for the two people in the role

With respect to the first advantage I believe that a co-chair arrangement opens up the possibility for  the board executive, with the executive director, to serve as a governance committee. Much has been written in a last few years on the value of standing governance committees and the drawbacks associated with traditional executive committees.2)On the subject of governance committees and executive committees I would direct the reader to the following sources. The Canadian consulting firm of Brown Governance has an excellent report, more than a decade old now on Executive Committees of the Board: Current Practices, Trends and Context, (Halton Hills, Ontario, 2007). Gail Perry has a terrific Checklist for a Top Level Board Governance Committee published on her blog Fired Up Fundraising. The CPA Canada publication, 20 Questions Directors Should ask About Governance Committees is very comprehensive and should be valuable for non-profit boards even if it was written for a corporate board audience

More Perspective

Two sets of eyes and ears on board dynamics is a good thing especially if the chairs are involved in any board problem solving and coaching. What one person might see the other might not or they may see the situation differently. It also underscores the value of board collegiality, especially when the other directors see the co-chairs working together with different strengths.

Some diversity in board leadership is also good thing for many reasons. Co-chairing, especially with a year of overlapping terms, ensures that some learning is involved especially when one of the two people has less chairing experience.

Co-Chairs Considered

As already suggested, I do not like the idea of selling a prospective board chair candidate with the promise of a reduced amount of work as a co-chair. It has been said by many that if you expect little from a board volunteer, you will get little. Still, a team approach to the job offers flexibility one does not get in a single chair or may not get in a chair & vice chair arrangement.

I have attached here a sample Board Co-Chairs Job Description

So, you might want to consider co-chairs when you are looking at your board structure. What do you think?

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The image above, entitled “Two Chairs”, is cropped version of an IPad painting by Carolyn Hall Young in collaboration with Gianluca Ricoveri. It enjoys a Creative Commons Licence 2.0 for non-commercial use.

 

References   [ + ]

1. See Mike Burns, Nonprofit Board Vice Chair: Doing it Right, January 2014
2. On the subject of governance committees and executive committees I would direct the reader to the following sources. The Canadian consulting firm of Brown Governance has an excellent report, more than a decade old now on Executive Committees of the Board: Current Practices, Trends and Context, (Halton Hills, Ontario, 2007). Gail Perry has a terrific Checklist for a Top Level Board Governance Committee published on her blog Fired Up Fundraising. The CPA Canada publication, 20 Questions Directors Should ask About Governance Committees is very comprehensive and should be valuable for non-profit boards even if it was written for a corporate board audience
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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