Advice to a Board Chair: A Q &A with the founder of Ruotolo Associates

George Ruotolo greeting Governor Chris Christie at Ramapo College. The Governor was visiting the school on Oct. 1 to highlight the upgrades that will be taking place due to $20 million in state funding.

George Ruotolo greeting Governor Chris Christie at Ramapo College. The Governor was visiting the school on Oct. 1 to highlight the upgrades that will be taking place due to $20 million in state funding.

George C. Ruotolo, Jr., CFRE, Chairman and CEO of Ruotolo Associates, has been a fundraising and public relations executive since 1973. In addition to his professional service, Mr. Ruotolo has served as a volunteer board member and chairperson of several local and national nonprofit organizations. He currently is the Chair of the Ramapo College of New Jersey (a state college located in Mahwah, Bergen County) Board of Trustees. In this Q & A, Mr. Ruotolo shares his unique perspective of serving as a board chair, as interviewed by Netlinks editor Liz Campbell.

While Mr. Ruotolo will be speaking about his experience at Ramapo College, many of his answers are relevant to other non-profits.

Q: What is the most important role of a board chair?

A: A board chair’s main function is to support the college’s mission and advance the vision of the president.

In most situations, the board chair must also actively support the institution’s fundraising initiatives and ensure that board members are engaged, focused, and actively involved in the tasks that will enable the nonprofit to reach its philanthropic goals. Given that I serve as chair of a state institution, philanthropy is not as important a focus as it would be in a private college or university. At Ramapo, the heavy lifting in the area of advancement is handled by the foundation and its board, although part of the trustees’ ongoing mission is to support their efforts.

Q: What are the top three priorities for board chairs?

A:

  1. Board chairs must focus on building productive relationships with the college president. While this sounds like a given, this is often a delicate balancing act because you need to serve as colleague, mentor, and supervisor. Yet at the same time you need to be conscious of separating your role from that of the president. Board chairs and presidents must work together but remain focused on their different roles and responsibilities. The chair–and board members–must allow the president to formulate a vision for the future of the school and support that vision as best they can.
  2. Establishing a relationship with your fellow trustees is also important. As we all know, management (of volunteers) is not a one-size-fits-all proposition; you need to understand what the strengths, fears, and weaknesses are of your trustees and work with them to accentuate their capabilities and how they can, with you, advance the mission of the institution.
  3. Determine what you need to know to effectively chair the board. Also, there is a responsibility to keep your fellow trustees up to date regarding the goings on at the institution. Educational programs designed to foster trustee learning at or around the time of board meetings works well to achieve this goal.

Q: What qualities must a board chair possess?

A: Two things come to mind:

  • Board chairs must be disciplined and understand that their role is to foster cohesion. Factions, opinions, and disagreements within the college must be brought to the trustees in appropriate ways. Most non-profits today have a whistleblower policy, which provides the means for constituencies to bring serious allegations or complaints in front of the board. Board chairs and trustees need to be very cautious that they do not become a lightning rod for issues or problems that should be brought through appropriate channels. It is never a trustee’s role to get involved or in any way supersede the role of the president. If your dealings with faculty and staff are part of a structured committee, then that’s certainly fine, but your role is not to solve faculty or staff problems.
  • Second, board chairs need to communicate effectively and remain as positive as they can be in communications with others.

Q: What is the board chair’s role in fundraising? In governance? In outreach?

A: Board chairs should aspire to become familiar with the do’s and don’ts of board governance/management. This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in all areas of governing. Every board chair should have a “go to” person–either on staff or a consultant-who can answer any sticky governance questions.

Regarding philanthropy in a private nonprofit, the CEO, the board chair, and chief development officer need to jointly nurture the advancement program. It’s also important that the board chair actively participate by first supporting the organization on an annual basis, and, as may be the case, by making a “stretch” pledge to a capital campaign, being present at special events, and encouraging your fellow trustees and other constituents to become involved in the advancement efforts.

Q: How can the board chair take the college to the next level?

A: I believe the primary way to advance an institution is to support the vision. Hopefully the president with whom you are working has a three- to five-year plan. In an ideal world the board chair and trustees participate in the strategic planning process. If that isn’t feasible, then you should be probing and asking questions but ultimately affirming the direction of the institution for the next several years and do your part to help the college achieve these objectives. Activities could include philanthropy; networking with state, local, and federal representatives; and making sure that your trustees are equally knowledgeable of the direction and the goals of the institution and encouraging them to likewise support the evolving mission.

Q: How can a board chair ensure that board meetings are more effective and engaging?

A: One of the strategies I employ at Ramapo College is to provide a different educational program at each meeting. We have also used an outside source, AGB (the Association of Governing Boards) to do an assessment of the trustees, which will provide them with ongoing education.

In addition, I believe that you need to encourage your fellow trustees to tell you how they think you are leading. It’s a way of encouraging openness among the trustees. And, of course, when trustees decide they want to commandeer a meeting, you need to be able to deal with this behavior in both an appropriate and positive fashion.

Q: What have you learned with your work for Ramapo College?

A: One thing I have learned is that my lifelong profession, namely consulting to non-profits, doesn’t always serve me well. It’s not important to be a problem solver unless these challenges are appropriate for the board to address. Therefore, I often need to remind myself to consider if this meeting, conversation, or interaction is necessary, and more importantly, appropriate.

Additionally, one of the challenges you have when serving as chair or trustee is that it is often difficult keeping track of all of the people you come across as part of your role. I actually have said to many of the faculty and staff to please remind me who they are–not so much their role, but their names. You meet a lot of people, and you don’t see them every day, so they may remember you but you can’t always keep them straight. This also demonstrates an interest on your part to stay connected with those who run the college on a day-to-day basis.