Recently, I was asked to serve on a non-profit board of directors. This has got me thinking a lot about what goes into making a good board member. It also got me to thinking about all the bad behaviors I’ve experienced from board members during the years. These are the traits I hope that I don’t exhibit, if I choose to serve on this board.

So, here are ten examples of board member actions I’ve actually dealt with in my non-profit career that have really turned me off. Of course, I won’t use any names, but sadly, these are real-life situations.

1. On two separate occasions, with two different organizations, I’ve had board members mis-use alcohol and actually get drunk to the point of making other people uncomfortable. The first time was at a golf outing and the second was at a board meeting/dinner that was held at a restaurant. Both situations required damage control afterward.

2. I had another situation, where the owner of a local computer store offered to donate several used, but refurbished computers to my organization. We didn’t really need the computers, but I wanted to develop a better professional relationship with this computer store owner, so I happily accepted the donation. I figured, I’d find some families in our community that didn’t have a computer at home for their kids and pass the computers on to them. The computer store owner was very happy, and said he’d deliver them to me later that week.

Well, one of my board members coincidentally happened to go into that computer store shortly after and overheard the owner tell one of his workers that those computers needed to be delivered to me. The board member heard that and asked why we were getting those used computers. The owner explained the situation and the board member flipped out. He said we had enough computers already and didn’t need any more. So he canceled the donation, right on the spot without consulting me at all.

Later that day, the computer store owner called me up and told me what had happened. My board member had really offended him, and I had to fix a relationship that I was working on building. This is a perfect example of a board member sticking his nose into day-t0-day management, where it doesn’t belong.

3. Here’s a great one. One of the non-profits I worked for had two portions to each board meeting- the public session and the closed session. The closed session was only used for sensitive staff issues that the general public didn’t need to hear about. One of the board members, however, would regularly bring his wife to the meetings, and she would stay for the closed sessions. We pointed out to him that since his wife wasn’t on the board, she shouldn’t be there. He responded by telling us that he would tell her everything that happened at the board meeting afterwards, anyway, so she might as well be there to hear things first hand. For many different reasons, this particular board member had great influence on the board, so she ended up being allowed to stay. This made other people, including myself, very uncomfortable. This is an example of a board member not understanding the concept of boundaries.

4. I was shocked when I learned that this one had happened. I worked for a non-profit once, where I put together an informational packet for board members that had private financial figures in it. Later on, I learned that one of my board members had passed this packet onto a person who was interested in getting onto our board. We didn’t know this new person at all. We had never interviewed her. She had not been introduced to the board at large. But, our board member thought it was ok to share private info with strangers. This is a failure in understanding the confidential nature of some portions of board meetings.

5. I worked for a non-profit summer camp once. The summer camp only lasted nine weeks per year. It would make sense then, that board members would want to schedule some time to visit the camp while it was operational. I know summers can get busy, but nine weeks, when you know the dates ahead of time, is still a pretty big window to plan a weekend get-away.

Well, we had a board member who did not make the time to visit the camp at all one summer. I was not the executive director of the camp, so perhaps I wasn’t privy to the reasons why he didn’t show up, but I was high up enough at the camp to realize that the board member who didn’t make an appearance, still had lots to say about how we ran the camp.
If you are going to make a commitment to be a board member for a non-profit, you have to make it a priority in your life, even if that is inconvenient from time to time. Service to a non-profit shouldn’t be only when it fits into your schedule. If you can’t go “all-in”, there’s no reason for you to be on that board.

6. I have written numerous times about how a non-profit needs to carefully cultivate relationships with local businesses. If we are going to ask them for donations and try to sell them ads, we should really do everything we can to make purchases from their store during the year.

Well, I once had two volunteers come back to my office and tell me that while they were out selling ads for a program we were creating, they went to a local electronics store. They introduced themselves politely and asked if they would be willing to purchase an ad with us. The manager broke into a tirade about how terrible our organization was!

A couple of months earlier, it turns out, one of our board members had gone into that store to buy a computer part. He talked to the manager for at least 15 minutes about the part and after all that time, my board member told the manager that he had seen the same part at WalMart for fifty cents cheaper. Therefore, he was NOT going to buy the part at the Mom& Pop shop, but rather go back to WalMart to save money.

The manager told my volunteers that they had some nerve to come in asking him to buy an ad for our school when we couldn’t even toss him an extra fifty cents. Needless to say, the volunteers were very embarrassed. I had to later go into the store personally and apologize on behalf of our organization.

7. Here’s another experience that was not handled well. I was part of a non-profit once and the board received a letter from a family in the community that was critical of the way we handled an event. The letter offered specific examples of the problems and expressed frustration and a reluctance to volunteer again due to the incidents detailed in the letter.
However, the family who wrote the letter did not sign their name, as they wished to remain anonymous.

A few members of the board were very offended by the letter, and they became singularly focused on finding out who had written it. In fact, they became so consumed by discovering the identity of author, that they totally ignored the reason why the letter was written in the first place.

Board members need to keep their egos in check. They shouldn’t be defensive, if they truly want the organization to prosper.

8. In yet another example of poor board behavior, I worked for a non-profit that had a very drama-filled board. Everyone was older than I was at the time, but many of them acted like children.

The worst of this came from two grown men. To each other’s faces, they were friendly and care free. However, in private, I had to hear constant complaining coming from each one of them about the other. I kept telling them to talk to the other one and settle things between them, but that never happened. I felt terribly caught in the middle and my relationship with both men became very strained because of that. Ultimately, that hurt the organization.

9. I worked for another non-profit that was very traditional and old-fashioned in its leadership. In fact, the board was made up of seven people. All seven were men. All seven were white. And all seven were over the age of 50. And, to make this worse, a board appointment was “for life”. The only time we ever got new board members was when one of them died or chose to retire.

There was no spark of imagination from this board. No diversity of thought. Everything was totally monolithic and predictable. And none of them made any move to change this situation. I think it’s a board’s responsibility to keep itself fresh and relevant to changing needs in society. This entire group was guilty of only looking inward. In the long run, that has hurt that particular organization.

10. The last example of bad board behavior I’ve experienced first hand comes from a group I have been involved with over the years as a volunteer and supporter, but not involved officially on a board. This organization requires many volunteers to provide its service, but surprisingly, there is no volunteer manual, no welcome letter, no official expectation sheet whatsoever. In fact, they don’t even have a unified volunteer policy.

Therefore, what has happened is that the same very few people end up doing almost all of the work and most of the so-called supporters avoid any responsibility at all. This has caused a handful of people to be overworked, stressed out and resentful of the people who hide out from volunteering.

While it’s very easy to be mad at the folks who aren’t helping out, I have to lay a lot of blame at the feet of the board members, who know this problem exists, but hasn’t done anything to solve it.

There are many examples of organizations who have figured out how to institute a fair volunteer policy. And, many of these groups have posted their volunteer policies online. It’s not hard to see what other groups have done and tailor a plan to your specific needs.

The board just needs to realize the problem it currently has on its hands and then do something about it.

Photo by: Evil Erin

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Posted on 25 September 2011

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. Suzanne Bakker says:

    I recognise some of the issues you raise, especially the one regarding a board that consists of people that are more or less the same, leading to a sort of “ideological” standstill. The problem was (and may still be) that board members were hard to find and thus the current board members and the director looked only in their own networks for new members. In addition to the issue of them all having similar perspectives, this also led to a sort of being unable to disagree functionally. The few members who did disagree, eventually left, because they could not achieve anything.

    Perhaps related to this chummy atmosphere was the culture of coming to meetings unprepared, so that during the joint reading of the minutes some board members would discover that they had actually promised to do something in between the previous and the current meeting. Needless to say that it hadn’t been done, and none of the other board members would even comment on this.

    In my experience relations between professional staff and a board can also be problematic. I have experienced that promises were made to staff by the board, which were not kept. For instance, helping people on their way to a new job after having been made redundant. Or, as an extremely small example which still baffles me: sending someone an e-mail, promising to send the very same letter by snail mail, and failing to do this. As the message was “sorry you’re leaving and thank you for all you’ve done”, the fact that the board could not be bothered to send it by snail mail was a bit undermining.

    Such things might be avoided if there’s a director who hassles the board, but if they’re all chummy or if the director is not the type to hassle others, such mistakes by a board can go “unpunished”. In which case staff can bond tremendously over a “common enemy”, but all the same, this is very destructive for the organisation itself and the boards credibility.

    In any case, I wish you good luck with your decision, and hope you will bring your experiences into the board you were asked to sit on! I am sure the organisation could benefit from your insights!


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