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UW’s Beck Conducts National Study on Nonprofit Board Chair Perceptions

September 12, 2016
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Debra Beck

A University of Wyoming staff member was part of a research team that conducted the largest national research study about the perceptions of nonprofit board chairs.

Debra Beck, UW College of Education public relations coordinator and an adult educator specializing in nonprofit board learning and development, and four other members of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management Governance Affinity Group developed an online survey to obtain data about the nonprofit board chair experience.

“A common routine for research on nonprofit board leaders is to go through people like CEOs for information. Actually gathering information on the board chair experience, primarily from nonprofit board chairs, is rare,” says Beck, an author, blogger and facilitator on nonprofit boards and governance. “The purpose of this survey was to gather baseline information about the nonprofit board chair experience from those serving in that critical role -- a significant contribution to the literature.”

The study focused on two research questions: How do individuals prepare for their role as chair of a nonprofit board; and what do board members perceive their leadership roles to be in relationship to the board, the community and the CEO?

“Voices of Nonprofit Board Chairs,” the research report, reflects the voices of 635 nonprofit board chairs from 42 states.

According to the report, about half of the respondents (51 percent) took no direct action to prepare for the role of board chair. When asked what they wished they had access to, in hindsight, the most common themes that emerged were: mentoring, peer networking, training and access to a specific resource on demand.

Other findings indicate, generally speaking, the board chair/CEO relationship is a satisfactory one -- at least from the board chair’s perspective. Respondents described high levels of communication between meetings, fulfilling obligations to each other and having high mutual trust with their leadership partner. Their top three roles as board chair were keeping the board focused on strategic direction, ensuring fulfillment of the board’s governance responsibilities and presiding over meetings.

Implications for nonprofit boards include developing an intentional, well-planned practice of board chair preparation and succession planning; providing training, mentoring and coaching opportunities specifically for board chairs; and supplying more accessible and research-based resources for board chairs.

Other research team members are Mike Burns, partner and organizational development consultant at BWB Solutions; Judy Freiwirth, principal of Nonprofit Solutions Associates; Gayle Gifford, president of Cause and Effect Inc.; and Mary Hiland, president of Hiland Consulting.

To read the research report, go to the Alliance for Nonprofit Management website at

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