Sooner or later, anyone who serving  as a board officer (chairman, vice-chairman, secretary, or treasurer) of a not-for-profit (“NFP”) organization must leave that position. In some situations the by-laws of the organization require rotation.  In other situations,  the NFP will have a “rotation through the chairs”–one year a person serves as the treasurer, the next year as secretary, and so on.  The former board chairperson is often styled as the Immediate Past Chairman or another comparable title. Changing board roles can be a healthy situation as the management gains depth through experience.  There is also a downside in that a one year term goes past very, very quickly.  It barely seems the new Chairperson is barely implementing  their agenda and it is time for a new Chairperson.

Suppose you were to find yourself in a similar situation. You have just relinquished the chairmanship of your NFP board.  What should you be doing now? What are the roles of a “Chairman Emeritus?”  While there are many,  the four most prominent are:

  1. Advisor.   It may be tough to realize but this is no longer your show.  The learning curve can be steep for  new board officers even if they have “rotated through the chairs”.  Suggestions concering operations or  organizational administration are important as they help cut down this learning curve.  How many times  in your career have  you encountered a new manager who said let’s attempt to solve a  problem in a certain way. You may have looked at this problem before, and tried that particular solution to no avail. Communicating that knowledge reduces wasted time and potentially  provides information critical to the ultimate resolution of the problem. Sometimes the new board officers just need to talk through problems.  Being available to help in such a situation is extremely helpful.
  2. Senior Statesman.  Many board members may still look to you as the former chairperson  for leadership.  There is now a fine balancing act between speaking your mind and potentially upstaging  the new board chair.   You need to act in a respectable and ethical manner, with  ethics always trumping other considerations. If you need to speak up, you should speak up.  You are a board member and a fiduciary to the organization.  The organization and the board need your best insight. However, you need to do this in a delicate and respectable manner, building  organizational cohesiveness behind the new management team.
  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.  Many board members do not take notes at meetings. You were there.  You can often fill in the blank spots for the new chairman by  providing  back history.
  4. Knowledge Authority.   Human resources and organizational development theorists point to different sources of organizational power.   One example is formal power.  Another is knowledge power.  It would be a shame for the organization to lose important technical knowledge  simply because your term has expired.

The vast majority of people who have served as a board officer found it to be a fulfilling, if not exhilarating experience.  Helping your fellow-man is a high calling.  You are now  entering another, perhaps more mature relationship with your organization.  You may find it just as challenging and as rewarding as well!