Dysfunctional Boards Are the Result of Dysfunctional Members
If you work for any nonprofit, over time, you will interface with a nonprofit board of directors. Board members can help take a nonprofit to a successful level or be an energy drain on staff members. In my career as a practitioner and consultant, I have worked with a variety of boards. I have also served on many boards.
It is an honor to serve, and one should serve to the best of their ability. Too often, I hear that nonprofit boards are dysfunctional, leading to dysfunctional members. Think of a board that you work with on an ongoing basis. Do you wish certain board members would either improve their performance or resign from the board?
The Chron notes that a dysfunctional board of directors can damage an organization internally and potentially cause external negative publicity. A board in a dysfunctional state shows a lack of confidentiality, conflicting agendas, lack of order, lack of respect for others, promotes a hostile environment, creates secret meetings, fosters personal agendas, has a lack of trust, and creates an environment of dominating members plus nonparticipating members. This type of board, if left unchecked, could dramatically affect staff leadership and organizational direction.
The Stanford Social Innovation Review, in their study of researching weak nonprofit boards, provides three classic examples of weak board traits. These are the board that only serves to rubber stamp what organizational leadership wants and acts as a cheerleader. Another type of a weak board performance example is one that micromanages by erroneously assuming key management functions plus governing functions.
A third type of unsuccessful boards are those that work in a balkanized fashion, concerned with only finances and not wholistic operations. The pandemic has made a number of nonprofit boards even weaker in scope. They do not regularly assess their performance and embody professional standards.
There are varied reasons a board could be dysfunctional, according to Corporate Board Member. These include a failure to address succession planning, reluctance to discuss strategy, inability to deal with disruptive behavior by a director, and a board structure that creates confusion. It is critical that boards define clear roles and responsibilities for leaders.
There must be a long-term board and committee leadership succession plan. The quality of chair and lead directors must be strong. Board leadership is key to a high performing board. There must be a process in place for feedback to occur. You need to constantly evaluate a nonprofit board of directors to see if it is operating at maximum potential.
Many times, a functional board becomes dysfunctional over time. Nonprofit board leaders need to know the signs of boards that are not performing well and address ways to improve focus and performance. Funding for Good states that boards should follow a board governance model.
This model establishes direction through strategic planning, provides oversite and ensures resources are available to fulfill the organizational mission. To have a board function correctly, you need to recruit board members who are enthusiastic, can contribute time, talent and treasure, and are willing to assume the legal and ethical duties in a board leadership role.
Many nonprofit CEO’s state that they do not have the right board members to manage board responsibilities, such as creating a sound business and financial plan. Serving on a nonprofit board can be the most rewarding or frustrating experiences in the leadership world. You cannot just place someone on a nonprofit board just to fill a seat. Each seat must utilize a function that benefits the organization. Just like a football team, you need to recruit participants to fill seats with various talents for the board to run successfully.
Boards are made up of a variety of players. Each board member performs at a different level for the organization. A dysfunctional board typically consists of dysfunctional participants. An article by Blue Avocado tackles the subject of board members that do not participate on their boards.
Note that in the case of weak board performers, seek to do the following.
- Check to see if the board member had clear written expectations prior to agreeing to serve on the board.
- Hold a board discussion to determine expectations for every board member.
- Be sensitive to reasons a board member is not as engaged as in the past.
- Transfer responsibilities to other board members if needed.
- Explore with the board member, why are they not involved.
- If desired, ask the board member to take a leave of absence from the board.
- Seek ways that would allow members to be more fully engaged.
- Discuss candidly, with board members, if board membership is meaningful to them.
- Revise what is expected of board members.
- Have the board chair discuss ways a board member can leave the board on good terms.
A Board Effect blog addresses how to remove a nonprofit board member from their board. Board member positions were never meant to be permanent in scope. When considering eliminating a board member from the board, follow the organization’s bylaws first to avoid any legal possibilities. It is always important to let a board member exit with grace on their own accord. When the board feels a member needs to leave, action should be taken.
Contact an attorney for legal advice. Board members may have a conflict of interest, fail to meet their fiduciary responsibilities, and do not fully participate in meetings plus external functions requiring board representation. They may just have a poor attitude toward board service. The best way to remove a director is to allow term limits to expire and not reappoint them.
Another possibility is to have a board member resign and create a temporary non-board position or establish a leave of absence. You may just have to ask the board member to leave the board or vote to impeach the member by a vote. When a member leaves the board not of their own accord, discuss the situation with the remaining members and evaluate ways to avoid that situation in the future.
To avoid having a dysfunctional nonprofit board, seek to recruit board members well. Provide quality orientation, excellent training and make sure expectations of each board member are clear. Seek to motivate and thank board members, plus continually take individual board member temperatures. If you see a member beginning to weaken in their performance, address this issue immediately. Quality board members mean a quality board, leading to greater organizational success.
Duke Haddad, Ed.D., CFRE, is currently associate director of development, director of capital campaigns and director of corporate development for The Salvation Army Indiana Division in Indianapolis. He also serves as president of Duke Haddad and Associates LLC and is a freelance instructor for Nonprofit Web Advisor.
He has been a contributing author to NonProfit PRO since 2008.
He received his doctorate degree from West Virginia University with an emphasis on education administration plus a dissertation on donor characteristics. He received a master’s degree from Marshall University with an emphasis on public administration plus a thesis on annual fund analysis. He secured a bachelor’s degree (cum laude) with an emphasis on marketing/management. He has done post graduate work at the University of Louisville.
Duke has received the Fundraising Executive of the Year Award, from the Association of Fundraising Professionals Indiana Chapter. He also was given the Outstanding West Virginian Award, Kentucky Colonel Award and Sagamore of the Wabash Award from the governors of West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana, respectively, for his many career contributions in the field of philanthropy.