Is a Nonprofit Board Chairman More a Referee or Cheerleader?

By Joe Gurreri, Member, Executive Leadership Alliance International

What is the ideal metaphor for the role of a nonprofit Board Chairman? With Super Bowl season upon us, the choice between Referee or Cheerleader seems timely. I have led a variety of organizations, both NPO and business consortium groups, and my experience points to Cheerleader as the ideal and most functional acting role for a Board Chair. The following are true for both a Board Chair and a cheerleader:

• Cheerleaders know the score and pay attention to the game to stay relevant. Cheerleaders won’t know every play and don’t sit in on the huddles, but they do lead the rally cry to support the team, based upon what is happening on the field. Board Chairs understand the organization’s mission and general business workings in order to ensure that the board relates to the organization in the most helpful manner.

• Cheerleaders understand that the crowd is the “12th man,” and they are accountable for that 12th player’s effectiveness to help the team. If the home crowd is not creating that home field advantage, it is the responsibility of that cheerleader to get them up on their feet. Board Chairs are evangelists, first with their board, then with the committees, and as an example to that network of connections that are prospects as new stakeholders. If the crowd isn’t on their feet when it’s crunch time, neither the cheerleader, nor the Board Chair is doing her/his job.

• Cheerleaders pay attention to what the team needs. When the defensive line is on the field, the cheerleaders will make the right rally call. They make different support calls when the offensive line is on the field. Board Chairs are accountable to lead the board to respond to the needs of the organization by supporting the team on the field. Examples include widening the number of stakeholders sourced from each board member’s network, increasing the organization’s reach to achieve its mission and obviously, the funds from donations from new donors touched by the mission.

• Cheerleaders are tough on new cheer applicants and have high standards for those on the cheer team. As a Board Chair, if the board members or committees are not performing, it is the Chair’s responsibility to lead them to productivity to help the organization achieve its mission and earn funding objectives.

• Cheerleaders understand how to help the team from the sidelines, not on the field of play. Cheerleaders don’t have a say on the players roster or the next play. Board Chairs do not insert themselves into the cogs of the organization. Yes, boards do need to affirm that the organization’s leadership is sound, and that the organizational structure is set to achieve the mission, but this is an occasional review, not an ongoing activity.

The role of Board Chair is rarely one of a mediator or referee. When acting as a mediator between staff/president and the board/committees the Chair must put forth resolutions to the discrepancy and then rapidly move forward with that resolution while tracking improvements. It is imperative that the Chair not linger or be indecisive while leading the board/committees through this said challenge. Once the issue is resolved, it is critical that the Board Chair step out of the tactical in order to become more strategic to rebuild the momentum, enthusiasm, and unwavering support for the organization and its mission.

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3 Responses to Is a Nonprofit Board Chairman More a Referee or Cheerleader?

  1. Mark Kardon says:

    Articulate comparison between the role of a cheerleader and board member using a sports metaphor.

  2. Michael Ksiazek says:

    Great Article!

  3. Tim Thoelecke says:

    Thorough analysis and nicely written. Good work!

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