Journal of Housing & Community Development

Commissioners Corner: The Role of the Board Chair

August 8, 2019

Congratulations or condolences — you are now the chair of your board of commissioners! Is this simply a ceremonial role to add to your LinkedIn page or list of community credentials? Or is it carte blanche to make all the changes you envisioned?

I am not the smartest, most powerful, or most experienced member of my board. I am the board chair, not for political gain or personal agenda, but because I am committed to the process of bringing out every voice at the table. 

The role of the board chair isn’t about accumulating and centralizing power. Rather, the role of the chair is to delegate and to balance the voices and the powers in the room in an ethical, respectful, and fair way. The board chair is the keeper of the mission of the board and is committed to distributing time and empowering every board member equally regardless of title or status in the wider community. When the board is assembled, it is a gathering of equals dedicated to the vision of the agency and best practices of the industry. 

As a member of both the NAHRO’s national Commissioners Committee and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force and with my day job as a clergyperson, people trust me with their deeply personal stories of exclusion and hurt. Often, for commissioners and residents, these stories feature board chairs more interested in power or personal agenda than the healthy functioning (both on an interpersonal scale and managerial level) of their agencies. The frequency of these stories has made it clear to me that the starting place for better inclusion is recruiting of better board chairs as leaders dedicated to diversity and inclusion in every PHA meeting. Healthy boundaries and accessibility for all at the board room level create healthy systems of power that lead to healthy agencies, communities, and neighborhoods.  

If you want a healthy, transparent, high performing agency, you need to start by infusing that culture into the board room—and that starts with a good board chair. 

Here are some ways to help: 

Nurture and train your board chair. This includes guaranteeing that each board chair is NAHRO Certified, and providing them with a commissioner mentor from your NAHRO Regional Council.

Have a succession plan. Rotate the chair position frequently to provide newer members with experience, and have the person you believe may be next in line for board chair attend meetings, along with the most recent emeritus chair.  

Create and maintain strong communication channels. As a board chair, stay in regular contact with your fellow commissioners, the executive director and other officers. Make sure that the entire board – especially the chair – is comfortable with the agency’s “elevator speech” and updated talking points. 

Some seek the role of board chair as the best way to push through an agenda or to keep an agency in line, but that is the job of the whole commission — not the board chair. The board of commissioners, together as a whole, makes policy and sets the direction. The seat of the board chair is not the place for the one with the strongest agenda for outside purposes. It is the place for the one with the sole agenda of service to the board and the residents whom we serve.

Regardless of how you became board chair, you have a lot of responsibility. The decision to claim that responsibility, however, is yours. Your primary responsibility isn’t to your political future or personal agenda but to the overall success of your agency, starting with your fellow commissioners. Truly, congratulations, and know that your colleagues around the county – especially in NAHRO – are here to support you in this work. 

Rev. Jake Joseph is a former Chair of the Board of Commissioners for Housing Catalyst in Fort Collins, Colorado. He recently moved to Connecticut for his work, and continues to be involved with NAHRO.

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