One thing that most nonprofit leaders have in common is that they often have at least one (or more than one) challenging board member. You know — the one who doesn’t show up for board meetings, or doesn’t do what she says she’ll do, or never makes a contribution, or derails meetings with his own agenda.
But do you ever kick them off? I doubt it.
Of the many taboos in the nonprofit sector, the taboo against asking bad board members to resign is one of the most destructive. Instead of encouraging ineffective or meddling board members to move on, nonprofit leaders often show misplaced gratitude for those errant board members continuing to take up space.
But the real risk in keeping a troublesome board member is that his presence will put a cloud over the rest of the board, hampering your higher performing members.
So instead of letting the sickness spread, you must address it. And here’s how:
Be Clear on Your Expectations
You can’t ask someone to resign if you’ve never explicitly told them what you expect of them, so make sure that you have each board member sign a roles and responsibilities document at the beginning of each fiscal year. This spells out exactly what you are expecting from them (in terms of meeting attendance, committee service, fundraising, etc.). The act of having each board member (even those returning from the previous year) sign this annually cements in everyone’s mind exactly what is expected. Better yet, have them sign it as part of your annual one-on-one meetings with each board member.
Tell Them They Aren’t Performing
Managing a board is very similar to managing a staff (or managing your children, let’s be honest). Once you set very clear expectations, then update them along the way about whether or not they are performing effectively. When a board member isn’t showing up for meetings, or is meddling where they shouldn’t, or isn’t meeting their give/get requirement, or is taking committee discussions in unhelpful directions, sit down with that board member (and your board chair and/or your board governance chair) to explain the situation from your perspective and ask them to explain their side.
Give Them One Last Chance
Once you’ve told them they aren’t performing the way you would like, agree on a path to improvement. Decide together what an improved performance looks like (attend all upcoming board meetings, meet the give/get requirement) and the deadline (3 months from now) to get there. It is your job to hold them accountable, so as that deadline approaches, analyze their performance to see if they did what they said they would.
Ask Them to Go
If the deadline comes and they still haven’t performed adequately, sit down with the errant board member and your board chair and explain that while you would love for them to stay on as an informal advisor and supporter, you are asking them to resign to make room for a board member who can fulfill their commitment to the organization. Explain the importance of the work your organization does and how critical it is that you have fully committed and contributing board members. Describe how this is probably best for them as well because it frees them up to focus more energy on the things that are taking them away. If you are truly allergic to confrontation, and this still seems too hard, read Crucial Conversations.
Contain Any Fallout
When asked to resign, not all board members will go quietly into the night. As soon as you’ve asked your troublesome board member to leave, tell the rest of the board what you all have done and why. Help them to understand how this is a positive step for the organization and how it will help further your larger mission. Ask for their support in seeing this decision through, and most importantly, tell them what the next step is.
Find a Replacement
And that next step is to find that board member’s replacement. Beyond the fear of confrontation, many nonprofit leaders are hesitant to ask a board member to resign because they fear they won’t find another warm body to replace that member. But board recruitment should be an ongoing and strategic exercise. Your board governance committee should be constantly analyzing the board matrix of skills, experience, and networks in order to see where holes lie and identifying and vetting new potential candidates. Then when a board member leaves (or is asked to leave) you have several great new candidates in mind.
Stop selling your nonprofit short by letting disengaged, uncommitted, or meddlesome board members get in your way. By setting clear expectations, measuring performance, being honest, and constantly identifying new candidates, you can build a much stronger, more effective and engaged board of directors.
If you want to learn more about building a great board, download the 10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board book.