After having spent many years working with non-profit boards, I know enough not to be personally disappointed by any one individual board member. Non-profit board service is a volunteer gig, and it’s tough to get down on someone who is giving of his or her time. Besides, as a leader of a non-profit, we are supposed to be resourceful and determined enough to work around any obstacle that gets in our way, even if that obstacle is a board member, technically our superior.
However, board appointments and/or elections can go horribly awry, and you, the dutiful employee, can be stuck with a person for the duration of the term- or two!
Here are some of the situations that I’ve personally encountered with board members over the years and what I learned from them. I didn’t always follow my own advice, but given time and distance, here is my accumulated wisdom.
(For obvious reasons, I will protect the identity of these people for fear of getting nasty emails or comments on my Facebook page.)
1. The Board Member Does Not Return Your Phone Calls or Email
The Problem: I’ve worked with more than a few of these kind of folks. I was always on the bottom of their priority list. I realized that these were busy people with long call sheets, but somehow, I never made it out of the cellar with them. I honestly wasn’t trying to harass them, but sometimes, communication with the board is necessary during the work day.
The Solution: In person, confront him or her about this situation. Ask if there is a way you can convey a signal in your message regarding the urgency of the call. You can promise to only call on a very serious matter, so they know to take your call. Also, ask the person if there is a better way to contact them- by email, text message, or cell phone, for instance. Fortunately, there are multiple ways to get your message across. As long as you don’t call with trivial matters, you should expect the courtesy of a call back in a reasonable amount of time.
The Last Ditch Effort: If the person can’t seem to work out a reliable system with you, take the problem to the board chair. The chair will need to determine if the board member has a problem with you specifically or if there is a question as to his or her overall commitment to your organization.
What Not To Do: Don’t just give up on these people. Many times I was tempted to just start ignoring the board members who ignored me, but in the long run, that’s a bad idea. It is the organization that suffers when people stop talking to each other.
2. The Board Member Doesn’t Initiate Projects or Offer Creative Ideas
The Problem: This was my biggest pet peeve. I couldn’t understand the board members who were part of our team who just sat there, meeting after meeting, and never said anything. They never offered a solution to a problem, they never came up with a brilliant idea from scratch, or they never had a suggestion for a new fundraising method or lead. I had to wonder why they were even on the board in the first place.
Maybe this sounds idealistic, but for me, board service has always seemed like it should be the result of a pre-existing passion and commitment. If a board member continually shows neither of these attributes, why even bother serving? On numerous occasions, I would just stare at these kinds of people, waiting for them to prove they had a pulse.
The Solution: I have to admit, I wasn’t very good at solving this particular flavor of dysfunction. I was personally just too angry to be fair and effective with them. However, in retrospect, I think the best course of action in this scenario is to work on developing a personal relationship with him or her. Make an invitation to dinner, or out to a ball game, or whatever. Do anything you can to develop a whole new level of comfort. By doing so, perhaps you’ll relax the person enough where he or she is willing to speak up at a meeting. You might learn that this person has a particular area of interest or expertise that you hadn’t discovered before, but it still has value. That’s something you could actually build upon in a later meeting.
Some people just aren’t comfortable participating in a group setting, but that doesn’t necessarily equate a lack of interest or passion. You, as the leader, have to pull that kind of energy out of your board in any way or fashion you can.
The Last Ditch Effort: If your attempts to better get to know this person fail to produce a more vocal and visibly passionate board member, you need to speak to the board chair and find out if you are missing something. Is there any area in which this quiet person is actually proving to be a benefit? If the board chair cannot adequately defend the behavior, then you should urge the chair to take action to remove this person if you really feel it would be in the best interest of the organization. However, you may learn that this person is making a contribution in a way you are not aware of. That’s not very likely, but you should give the board chair a chance to explain.
What Not To Do: My own personal instinct would be to provoke a confrontation at a board meeting, in front of all the other members. I would go after that person and try to get something out of him or her. (If any of you ever saw the movie “The Paper Chase” you know what I’m talking about…) Hopefully the other people in the room would finally see your point.
However, this is not a good plan. It could end up backfiring, and making you look like a real jerk. It may even turn some of the board members against you, making your position vulnerable. So, I highly recommend not taking anybody out in public.
3. The Board Member Shows No Interest in Learning More About the Field of Your Non-Profit
The Problem: I have specific experience with a board in which more than one of the members either knew absolutely nothing about the field of our non-profit or their experience was so dated that they knew nothing relevant. While this, in itself is bad, the worst part is that these board members showed no interest in exploring and learning about what we were actually doing. This spells serious long-term trouble for your non-profit if you have members of your board who are like this.
The Solution: First, you need to find out why the board members don’t care enough to learn or stay current. Perhaps they were asked to serve on your board for a specific financial or political reason, not because he or she is particularly devoted to your cause. I understand this reality, but if this person is going to be there a while, he or she might as well get comfortable, right?
So, I would do my best to personally befriend this individual. A series of lunches, friendly emails, maybe a couple of personal phone calls in which you ask advice on a personal issue- these are all ways to gain the board member’s friendship. Once this relationship has deepened, I would do everything in my power to get him or her interested in what we, the organization, is doing. Give them your literature, tell them success stories, introduce them to key staff members, invite them witness your organization in action.
If the board member is a veteran of the organization, but hasn’t been around in decades, make a great effort to inquire about their experience “back in the day”. Ask to look at pictures and listen to all the stories about how things used to be. Let them get all their nostalgia out. Once they have exhausted their stories and memories, start bringing them up to date. Never put down the past, but highlight all the ways the past has helped shape the present. Draw similarities, don’t point out differences. Most of all, let the board member know how useful a person with experience can be in your organization.
This kind of time investment will likely pay-off in board members who learn to either love or re-love your non-profit.
The Last Ditch Effort: If your efforts to woo your non-educated/informed board members don’t work as planned, you’ve got some cold-hearted board members. In this case, I would work with the board chair to concoct some sort of volunteer event in which board members would need to actually invest some sweat equity in the organization and work alongside modern day staff and volunteers. That kind of passion is irresistible.
What Not To Do: As mentioned above, a person like this is usually appointed to a board for a specific reason that has very little to do with the actual operations of the non-profit. This person may have connections or access to something valuable to the organization. So, the last thing you want to do is tick him or her off. Again, just kill him with kindness and hopefully he’ll come around.
4. The Board Member Tries to Micromanage Your Day to Day Job-Related Tasks
The Problem: A board member mistakenly thinks it is her or her job to run the organization on a day to day basis. He or she will camp out in your office, interact with the staff (thus confusing them), and question everything you are doing.
The Solution: I know how most of you would like to solve this problem, but we won’t get to that until the “What Not To Do” portion.
Honestly, the best way to handle this situation is in private and be sure to give this board member way more respect than he or she has shown you. Without sounding patronizing, explain to this person how the chain of command works and that you need to maintain authority in the eyes of the staff. Tell him or her how difficult that is to do with a board member contradicting or pre-empting your leadership. Force the board member to tell you if he or she is unhappy with your job performance. If so, ask for a chance to rectify the situation on your own, without the constant oversight. If there is not a problem with your performance, then it will be easy to ask the board member to step back.
The Last Ditch Effort: If this civilized, one-on-one confrontation does not work, then you need to alert the board chair about the problem. The chair may be unaware of the situation. Ask the leader to handle this on a “board member to board member” level. This really should solve the problem. If the board chair is the offender, then you should discreetly talk to a couple of the other board members, so they can approach him or her in a group. If you come across as too harsh, you could be in the process of making an enemy. Be careful.
What Not To Do: Well, I can think of a number of things I’d like to say and do to a board member who stepped over the line in an egregious manner. However, such an ugly confrontation would be counter-productive in the overall scheme of things. Handle the situation quickly, quietly, and respectfully, just the way you’d like to be treated.
5. The Board Member is Unwilling to Utilize His or Her Personal and Professional network to Raise Money or Get Services Donated
The Problem: I’ve always thought that there are four main responsibilities of a board member: donate their time, talent, money, and connections. If a board member is refusing to donate in any one of these areas, you should figure out what the reason is.
The Solution: First, you need to be doubly sure that your observations are totally accurate. If you accuse someone of not giving, especially a board member, you could greatly offend him or her, and that will cause all sorts of problems for you. So, quietly establish a pattern to prove you are right.
If you feel your observations are correct and valid, I would very gently start to ask this person for specific items. For donations of time, talent, and connections, this is rather straight-forward. Be specific in what you’d like to get, ask politely, and in most cases, you’ll end up with what you’re after. Many times, a board member just overlooks his own contacts- not on purpose, but just because he or she is not thinking in that manner. So, in these cases, a simple reminder in a very polite fashion should do the trick.
I would mention, however, that sometimes the “connections” donations can be tricky due to pre-existing relationships, future business concerns, etc. If you get waved off on this one, just find another way to solve your problem. You do need to respect your board members’ outside lives and realities.
Money is a little more difficult because people can be so defensive about their personal finances, so I actually prefer to pass this one off to the board chair. You shouldn’t feel bad about this. There is an understood responsibility for board members to give financially to the organization, so you are not pushing for something unexpected. However, there are some people who join a board who make it very clear up front that they don’t have deep financial pockets, and that’s ok, but they should still be giving a little something.
Nevertheless, if you are uncertain, bring this up with the board chair privately and ask him or her to speak to the board member in question. It is not your position to quiz a board member over his personal finances.
The Last Ditch Effort: If you have respectfully asked a board member for a specific donation of time, talent, or connections, and you aren’t getting at least some kind of help, I would first ask why, so I know how to proceed. If it’s a valid reason, figure something else out. If the person just flat-out doesn’t want to help, I would keep asking for things and build a case against the board member for non-cooperation. Of course, discuss this with your board chair first, so you have back-up when the time for a confrontation comes. If you keep asking and the board member keeps saying no, eventually, the board member will find a way to get off the board. Who wants to be constantly hounded if you don’t want to give?
What Not To Do: Absolutely do not call anyone out in public. Accusing a board member of being stingy is the quickest way to a headache for you. Make sure you solidly build your case and get back up from the rest of the board. Don’t go this alone. You will probably lose in the end, if you do.