In the first part of this series, I introduced the topic of how to handle bad behavior from your board members. With this continuation, I’m throwing out five more examples of how board members can hurt (rather than help) your non-profit and, of course, what to do about it.

6. The Board Member Doesn’t Respect the Confidentiality of a Board Meeting

The Problem: This is a huge dilemma. If you discover that the privacy of a board meeting has been breached, you have completely lost any confidence that you previously had in the group. You will not be able to trust that anything you or another board member has said will remain confidential. At this point, you have no idea how long this leak has been occurring and what kind of damage has been done to your organization’s reputation, as well as your own and the other board members.

Of course, there are many items that boards discuss that are meant to be aired publically. However, when the closed portions of the meeting begins, you have to have 100% certainty that whatever is said remains in the room.

The Solution: The first thing you need to do is to figure out the severity of the leak. I think damage control should be your primary concern. If someone in the community was hurt by the leak, look to fix that hurt. Once you think you have smoothed over any problems like this, then you can turn to handling the situation with the offending board member.

I would argue that any breach, no matter how severe, is grounds for dismissal. Every board member knows that at least portions of board meeting are to be kept strictly private. If someone ignores this knowledge, that reveals a serious character flaw, and for the sake of the organization, he or she should be removed.

I do understand that every situation is different, and it’s very difficult to make blanket indictments without knowing the extenuating circumstances. Perhaps you’ve encountered this situation before, and you have elected to just remind the board member of his or her duty.

Personally, I would be very worried about taking that kind of risk. The issues a board discusses behind closed doors are usually very sensitive. In my experience, these kind of private matters involve personnel, financial, or legal matters, all of which are very important and not meant for public consumption.

The Last Ditch Effort: If you decide not to remove the offending board member after the first instance of breaking the trust of the board meeting, you must be prepared take those more drastic measures if it happens a second time.

What Not to Do: As with all of the recommendations in this article series, it is important to remember that as the executive director, you are probably not on the board and you can and should not be taking any disciplinary action of the board members yourself. Your best role is to support the rest of the board in their decisions or to bring to their attention any courses of action that they themselves are not aware of.

7. The Board Member Imposes a Personal Agenda on the Organization that is Counter-Productive to Growth

The Problem: You discover that there is a board member who has a personal agenda that could conflict with the goals of your organization. You might not realize the extent of the problem at first, but as time goes on, the issues may present themselves more clearly.

This could manifest itself in a board member serving on two different boards simultaneously and both groups are going after the same grant, for instance. Which group does that board member lobby for?

Or, it could be that a board member of your organization holds a certain philosophical or religious view that blocks a desired form of growth.

The Solution: Many times a person who is guilty of this doesn’t see the problem for him or herself. This board member has a passion for both causes or arguments, and he or she don’t realize that there is a conflict going on.

In the best-case scenario, the conflict is pointed out, and then he or she takes the appropriate steps to remove the conflict quickly and professionally.

If you are lucky, the board member will react well and admit to not realizing the conflict.

If you are not so lucky, the board member will dig his or her heels in and fight you on it. I’ve been in this situation before, and I did my best to patiently explain my side of the argument, although I suspect that I wasn’t as charming or as graceful as I could have been.

The Last Ditch Effort: If a creative win-win solution cannot be found, then the conflicted board member must be told by the board chair to make a decision. Although it may be a difficult process to go through because of all the emotions involved, it must be done. For the good of the organization, all board members need to be totally committed to the same, one cause. Anything less, and you’ve got a person who is hindering rather than helping.

What Not to Do: Don’t lose your temper. Try to remember that a board member in this position got there because of a passion. It’s ok for people to be passionate about many different things, even things that may conflict with each other. As long as the person has integrity about it, it’s hard to be angry with him or her for believing in something, even if you disagree with it.

Ranting and raving from you will only serve to alienate a supporter who could be helpful in many ways, even if it doesn’t mean board service.

8. The Board Member Has No Follow Through

The Problem: As the director of an organization, you rely on people coming through on the promises they make you. Their promises, combined with promises from others, form the basis for your action plan as a leader. When someone as important and as supposedly valuable as a board member doesn’t follow through with you, you’ve got a real problem.

The Solution: If a normally reliable board member let you down on something one time, I have always found it best to be understanding and forgiving. I did whatever I could within my power to help that board member get back on track. I figured it was good for the organization, and (I hate to sound Machiavellian about this, but…) it was good for me. That board member now “owed” me a favor.

However, if you find that a pattern is emerging, and the same board member is dropping the ball repeatedly, you need to take action. I would strongly suggest getting your facts together before confronting him or her. Make sure you have a mental list of how and when the lapses have occurred. You want to be able to site concrete examples during your talk.

Once you do have your in-person, private meeting with this board member, be absolutely sure to be polite. Ask him or her if there is anything going on either personally or professionally that is perhaps getting in the way of the board commitment. If you have noticed the problem, you can be sure that he or she has, as well. This kind of a meeting could actually be very good not just for you, but for the board member, too, as it gives the opportunity to get everything out in the open.

Don’t pry for details of the personal or professional problem, but just give the person the chance to say that there is a problem. Once this admission is made, a solution can be found.

Perhaps there can be a temporary change of assignment or you can find other volunteers to help with low-level responsibilities. You, the director, are in the driver’s seat. Be sure to be helpful, understanding, and generous- remember that this is a volunteer position and you probably don’t want to sever all ties with this individual, even if he or she hasn’t been very reliable in the recent past.

If you are helpful and the situation is resolved, you’ve developed a stronger relationship with that board member, and that can only be helpful in the future.

The Last Ditch Effort: If, after, this one-on-one meeting, nothing changes and you are still being let down, you need to bring this to the attention of the board chair. If the offender is the board chair, you should gather a group of other board members to approach the chair as a united front.

I would guess that in most of these cases, the board member has become overwhelmed by something going on at home or at work. It’s hard to imagine that too many of these situations comes about solely based on laziness or something like that.

But, if the board chair confronts the problem and still no progress is made, then it becomes time for the person to resign. If it comes to this, however, make sure it is done kindly. You don’t want to alienate this person on the way out the door. Perhaps he or she could be helpful sometime down the road.

What Not to Do: Don’t burn bridges. At one time, this board member was very valuable and dedicated. Most likely, something just temporarily got in the way of that. If you make him or her feel guilty and degraded as they are leaving, you’ll never hear from them again, and that will ultimately be your loss.

9. The Board Member is an Intellectual Lightweight

The Problem: This is perhaps the most sensitive of the problems I list in this article. You never want to call anyone dumb, for all sorts of really good reasons. However, when you’re sitting around the board table, it is not altogether uncommon for one of your members to become really quiet when you start talking about serious matters- financial, legal, moral, etc.

At first, you might just think that this person is thoughtful and reserved. But, after a few meetings, you’ll start to wonder if this person doesn’t actually  have a clue as to what you all are talking about.

Or maybe he or she isn’t quiet about it. Maybe this person blatantly advertises his or her uninformed opinions. Either way, you realize that you have a board member who doesn’t have very strong intellectual chops.

The Solution: As I said, this is a sensitive subject. You have to be very careful in what you say and what you do. You don’t want to offend in any manner. So the way I would handle such a scenario would be to schedule some board development days. Figure out which issues that are most pressing and then find a volunteer who could come in and give a half-day seminar on that subject. A lot of people could use a brush-up on financial issues, like how to read a P&L statement.

Other topics that could be turned into seminars might be “legal matters pertaining to non-profits” and “non-profit board management”. If you make these sessions for the entire board, he or she won’t feel singled out and would probably greatly appreciate this opportunity to learn.

The Last Ditch Effort: If, after these informative sessions, the board member still isn’t showing progress, I would make sure that he or she did not have very important responsibilities. Honestly, this person probably isn’t trying to take over the checkbook, so I’d just make sure you find the areas that he or she does understand and allow them to thrive there.

What Not To Do: The first most important thing not to do is not to make this person feel stupid. Make sure you are respectful and grateful for everything this person does do for your organization. The second most important thing not to do is not to be angry at this person. It will do you no good to bang your head against the wall just because this person flat out doesn’t understand the issues at hand. Your anger will eventually show through and you’ll have a real problem on your hands.

10. The Board Member Has Lost His or Her Passion for Your Organization

The Problem: I saved this one for last, because it is the one that makes me the saddest. This can happen to anyone in any organization. But, as the director, you realize how difficult it becomes to advance your non-profit when you can tell that one or more of your board members is just treading water. At one time, he or she was on fire for your cause. Now, however, that fire is gone.

The Solution: The first thing I would do in this situation is to gently find out if there is something happening in this board member’s personal or professional life that could be sapping the passion out of him or her. You never know if there is a serious illness in the family or the threat of lay-offs at work. If you can discreetly find out what’s going on, you will be able to approach problem in a much smarter way.

While there’s not much you can do in this scenario, you can offer your moral support and offer to help them find creative ways to re-discover their original spark. This might mean a “mini-sabbatical” for a period of time, a reduction of duties on the board, or even the possibility of stepping down completely.

Another scenario is that the board member has become bored with his or her responsibilities or role in the organization. If this is the case, and you definitely want to keep this board member on your team, talk to him or her about taking on new projects. Re-assign roles and job descriptions. Do anything along these lines to get their juices flowing again.

The Last Ditch Effort: If nothing mentioned above succeeds in getting the board member to light back up again, the last suggestion I have is to invite that board member to spend some serious time on the front lines in your organization. If you’re a children’s camp, the board member should play some kickball with the youngest campers. If you’re an animal shelter, get the board member taking the dogs for a walk. If you’re a senior citizens support group, get the board member driving the van to doctor’s appointments. Whatever it is that your organization does as its mission, you should submerge your board member in it. That’s the reason he or she volunteered to become a board member in the first place.

If this exposure and immersion doesn’t do the trick, I think it is probably time for the board member to hang it up.

What Not to Do: As with previous board problems, my biggest piece of advice here is not to burn any bridges and make sure you respect the service already put in. Board service shouldn’t be a life-long commitment. For the health of the organization, it’s important to keep infusing new ideas, new talents, and new energy into the group.

Conclusion

When I first took a position of authority in a non-profit, I had this image in my head that the board of directors was this grand, royal, infallible collection of super heroes. (Obviously, I was very young….)

As I gained valuable experience, I learned that board members were human like everyone else, subject to the same pressures and realities. I learned to give them a lot of space to be human.

However, each one of the board members also made a promise to serve to the best of their ability and that promise carried with it high standards and expectations. So, from a leadership perspective, I had to find that right balance in being grateful and respectful of their service, but I also had to hold their feet to the fire more than I would a casual volunteer.

Since I was entrusted with the overall direction of the group, I had to make sure I was getting the most out of every single person, including and especially, the board.

Anyone who has ever lead a non-profit can identify with these examples of bad board behavior, and I’m sure dozens of further examples could be shared.

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Posted on 19 February 2009

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