A Vice Chair (also sometimes called Deputy Chair) has no formal governance role or status, and many charities do not have one, either in their governing document or in practice. Yet it is potentially an invaluable role that can add much to the governance and leadership of a charity.
Having a Vice Chair has many advantages:
- A critical friend to the Chair
Chairing can be tough and lonely. It’s healthy to have a sounding board – someone to turn to for private advice and a different perspective. Someone who will give you support but also feedback and honest advice.
- A deputy
You want to know someone is able to step up if you are juggling other commitments or distractions, personal or professional. It is also good for the whole board to know who would be expected to step in and show leadership if the Chair was absent for any reason.
- Extra capacity to the board
In practice, there’s a limit to what you can ask of your fellow trustees. But it’s reasonable to expect a Vice Chair to put in more time and take on more roles than other trustees, for example, chairing a sub-committee, leading on a strategy project or trustee recruitment.
- Objective oversight
It is hard to chair meetings – and charities: you can lose perspective. A Chair cannot read everything that’s going on; the Vice Chair can be the Chair’s eyes and ears. Importantly, the Vice Chair is also in a natural position to lead on appraising the Chair, and the board.
- Managing difficult dynamics
Having a Vice Chair can be helpful if there are tensions among the board, or between Chair and CEO. A Vice Chair potentially has the informal authority to mediate, see the issues more dispassionately and help bridge the gaps. The board may simply want someone to feedback to privately and that can help reduce tensions and provide early warnings of relationship issues.
- Supporting succession planning
In some charities, the Vice Chair is the designated successor to the Chair. Being Vice Chair gives them an opportunity to prepare for the chairing role, and they expect to take on the role. But this is not always the case. It helps to be clear about this. Otherwise, you can miss out on excellent candidates who simply want to serve as Vice Chair, or are not yet sure they would wish to commit to becoming Chair.
The key to success:
As a Chair, make time to meet your Vice Chair, and have regular one-to-one conversations to develop the relationship. You need to build mutual trust and respect.
And remind your Vice Chair they are also eligible to join Association of Chairs! Find out more about membership.
Many thanks to John Williams, Vice Chair of Association of Chairs, for writing this piece.