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Who's who on the board

Most community group boards have a group of office bearers, most commonly a chair, vice chair, secretary and treasurer. They may also appoint a public officer. Those boards with committees or sub-committees will also need committee chairs and vice chairs.

How the different office bearers are appointed should be spelled out in the community group's constitution. Typically, they will be nominated for the position and then the full board will take a vote on the nominees.

While all working towards the same cause – the advancement of the community group – the different office bearers' roles can be very different.

The board chair

In times past, the chair used most commonly to be referred to as the "chairman". The gender neutral title of chair is nowadays generally considered more appropriate and is in wider use. Some boards use the term "president" instead.

The chair serves as the board's figurehead and acts as a link between the board and the CEO (who in turn acts as a link to staff and volunteers).

While in practice the chair is required to play a leading role in the board, it is worth noting that there is little legal distinction. The law may, where it is relevant, acknowledge that other board members expect the chair to take a leadership role, but there is no legal distinction between the duties of a chair, and those of any other board member.

Boards are expected to make collective decisions, however many community group constitutions will allow the chair an additional casting vote to break a tie, giving him or her important directional power. Usually, however, a good chair will resolve the matter by maintaining the status quo.

The roles carried out by the chair vary according to what stage the community group has reached in its lifecycle. In the early stages of a group's growth, the chair might do everything from working out broad policy to writing the annual report. As the group grows, the chair's role is likely to become more narrowly defined.

At a minimum the chair will be responsible for managing ("chairing") board meetings – directing debates, ensuring that discussions do not stray too far from the prepared agenda and keeping board members within the meeting rules. The chair is also responsible for taking a leading role in keeping the vision alive, setting the organisation's course and monitoring its direction, and for ensuring that proper procedures are in place.

Other roles can include:

  • Calling "special" or "extraordinary" meetings when required
  • Assisting community group staff in preparing board meeting agendas
  • Welcoming and inducting new board members
  • Overseeing the search for and monitoring of the group's CEO
  • Acting as a spokesperson for the organisation to the media, to government and to other organisations
  • Representing the organisation at official functions
  • Calling other board members into line if they are not fulfilling their responsibilities
  • Mediating disputes between board members.

The board vice chair

Many boards appoint a vice chair to support the chair in his or her many tasks and to fill in when the chair is absent.

The vice chair is expected to play a major role in the board leadership. He or she should also have a good understanding of the responsibilities of the chair and be able to take on these responsibilities when required.

In some boards, the vice chair's position is seen as a training ground for a future leader, with the deputy expected to take over when the chair's term expires.

The board secretary

All incorporated boards must appoint a secretary. Like board members, secretaries must be at least 18 years old, however they are not necessarily board members in their own right – the task is often carried out by a paid employee.

Jobs carried out by the secretary include:

  • Ensuring meeting agendas are prepared and distributed
  • Ensuring meeting minutes are taken
  • Ensuring all the legal requirements of incorporation are carried out
  • Assisting in organisation of board meetings.

The board treasurer

The treasurer's job is to monitor the group's financial processes and keep on top of reporting obligations. In a big organisation with a professional staff, a treasurer may provide a link between the staff and the board on financial matters, make sure procedures are put in place to keep things running smoothly, draw up a budget and monitor the monthly accounts. In smaller organisations, the treasurer also organises bank accounts, signs the cheques, keeps the books on track and draws up a budget.

A person serving as a treasurer needs to have sound knowledge of financial matters, as well as the priorities and objectives of the community group. They will usually chair the finance committee, if there is one, and will work with staff to ensure that regular financial reports are provided to the board. The treasurer is also responsible for liaising with independent auditors in the production of financial statements, and ensuring the board is aware of and understands the group's financial situation and performance.

It is important to note, however, that the existence of a treasurer in no way detracts from the duties of other board members. Duties are personally imposed on every board member, whether or not in practice only some assume a given responsibility.

The public officer

Depending on your group's requirements of incorporation, it may have to appoint a public officer. The public officer is usually responsible for:

  • Notifying the authorities of any changes in the official affairs of the organisation and its financial position;
  • Keeping a record of board members; and
  • Providing an annual statement.

Often, one person will serve the dual roles of secretary and public officer.

(Note that this is a different role to that of publicity officer. A publicity officer, who is not necessarily a board member, is responsible for liaising with the media and other relevant organisations with the aim of increasing the board's profile.)

Committee chair

Many boards establish committees (or sub-committees) to concentrate on specific areas – fundraising, governance, budget and finance, marketing and public relations, CEO recruitment, etc. – and then make a recommendation to the full board. This helps to streamline the decision-making process and can therefore help to make better use of board members' time and expertise.

The people who chair committees are responsible for:

  • Overseeing the committee and ensuring it carries out its role effectively and efficiently.
  • Managing committee meetings.
  • Ensuring members have the information they need to carry out their roles effectively.
  • Reporting to the board chair on committee matters, including decisions that need to be approved.

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