Earlier this month I relinquished my role of Chairman of the Board of Directors of a not-for-profit (“NFP”) organization.  The organizational by-laws require a new chairman be elected every three years. I completed three years of service in that position and it was time for someone new to take the reins.  My service began as an interim appointment to the Board of Directors and I subsequently went on to win three successive terms to the Board.

Our current chairman is new to the Board.  While he has experience with other non-profits this is his first engagement with a Center For Independent Living.  The laws and regulations for this type of organization are somewhat bewildering. More than one-half of our board must be disabled in order to maintain our standing under federal and state law.  Should we miss this requirement, we run afoul of the law, and our funding could simply disappear. Some of the rules are not even written.  For instance, the State of New Jersey has an unwritten rule the executive director of an organization receiving funds from the state may not sit on the board.  Obviously, this is the opposite of the corporate world, where a limited number of “inside” directors is permissible.

Currently, I am not assigned to any new committees and do not hold any other board positions.  How can a former chairman of a small NFP help the new board management? Suppose you were to find yourself in a similar situation. What are the roles of a “Chairman Emeritus?”  While there are many, I believe the four most prominent are:

  1. Advisor.   It may be tough to realize but his is no longer your show.  All of the glory and agony belong to the new Chair. The learning curve can be steep for the new board officers.  Suggestions about how to administer the organization are important as they help cut down this learning curve.  How many times have we encountered new managers who have said let’s look at a problem in a certain way?   We may have looked at this problem before, and communicating that knowledge reduces wasted time.
  2.  Senior Statesman.  Many board members may still look to you as the former chairman for leadership.  There is now a fine balancing act between speaking your mind and potentially upsetting the new board chair.   My opinion is you need to act in a respectable and ethical manner.  Ethics always trumps all though. If you need to speak up, you should speak up.  You are a fiduciary to the organization.  The organization and the board need your best insight.  Sometimes the new board officers just need to talk through problems.  Being available to help in such a situation is extremely helpful.
  3.  Historian.  You have critical knowledge that may not exist on the record.  There are various methods of taking board minutes.  Some are sparser than others.  You were there.  You can fill in the blank spots for the new chairman.  You can also provide back history for him as well.
  4. Knowledge Authority.   Human Resources and Organizational Development theorists point to different power bases.   One example is formal power.  Another is knowledge power.  In my time as board chairman, I have developed a very strong understanding of New Jersey NFP law and regulations.   You probably developed skills extremely useful to the organization.  It would be a shame for this knowledge to disappear from the organization.

My time as Board Chairman was personally rewarding, but I am entering another, perhaps more mature relationship with the board of my organization. I think it will be challenging and just as rewarding!


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