Tue, February 19 2013

Reader question: What to do with deadbeat board members?

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

Filed under:   Nonprofit leadership •

Here’s a recent reader question.

I have two board members that I like and want to keep as supporters, but clearly they don’t have the time or don’t make the time to be good board members.  Elections will be here soon, should I just call them and tell them that it appears they don’t have time for the board and ask them not to run or do you have a better idea?

This is an interesting one.  I find myself asking, what does it mean to be a good board member?  I think there are a range of qualities.  Good board members are generous - with money, skills, time or preferably all of the above.  They are engaged at the right level—they lay out a vision and then let the executive director define the path toward it, without micro-managing.  They are reliable, showing up for most meetings and speaking thoughtfully when they are there.  They ask for and track results.  And they are public champions of the organization, lending their voice to your message and recruiting new supporters. 

So let’s assume your two board members are none of the above.  That’s a problem.  Or maybe they only have some of these qualities.  I don’t hear you saying they are toxic - in which case, I would offer different advice than I do here.  Basically, I glean that they are checked out.  So before calling them up and calling them out, I’d think about why they might be disengaged.

Are they lazy?  Is their heart not in the mission?  Or do they simply not have the time to make your organization a priority?

Or could it be something you are doing?  Maybe you haven’t clearly told them what you expect.  Maybe you haven’t asked them to do more. Do you keep them closely updated on your organization?  Are you giving them well-organized, clear materials before meetings?  Do they get enough time to prepare beforehand?  Do you run lively, interesting and engaging meetings? 

My advice would be to call them up on a fact-finding mission to get the answer to these questions.  Or ask a fellow board member to do it. This is the problem of the whole board, not just yours.

Say something like this:

“I am calling to thank you for your support of ABC nonprofit.  We depend on people like you to help us (talk about your mission here).  You’ve been with us as a board member for some time, so I wanted to check in and see how you are feeling about your board service.  Elections are coming up, so I’m exploring with each board member their interest level in continuing with us.”

Then listen.  You may get a simple “Great.”  Or you may get a confession (“I’m so sorry I haven’t been to meetings, I just don’t have time”) or an insight (“I am not sure how I can best be involved.”)  That tells you where to take the conversation next.  If the person said “great,” and they are anything but, you might want to ask another question.  Like, “That’s wonderful.  Looking forward, we’re going to take steps to make our board more fully engaged.  Are you willing to…” then list every single thing they need to do.  That should result in their opting out or committing to more.  Either way, you get what you need.  If they say something like, “I’m sorry I can’t do more” or “Sorry I don’t go to many meetings,” you can gently suggest they don’t run for re-election.  Or if they say something like, “I’m not sure how to be involved,” you can tell them.  Maybe they had no idea of what was expected.

You say you want to keep them as supporters, so I’d make that clear in any conversation.  Be ready with ways they can continue to help, just not on the board.

The bottom line?  Rather than calling them and saying “it appears you don’t have time,” ask and listen. You’ll know what to do from there.  In my experience, ratcheting up expectations encourages less committed people to be honest about their dedication level, and disengaged people usually are relieved to volunteer themselves for a graceful exit.  If you let them do the talking and they don’t want to do more, they’ll walk out the door for you.  If the problem is how you’ve communicated or engaged, maybe there is an opportunity to turn things around.  Either way, the conversation will be seen as you being a caring partner.  And that’s what you want.

Readers: What is your experience?  Share your tips in the comments!

  • Comment: (8)   


Change your term limits to a three year term with one year off prior to reelection except for those elected to be on your executive committee. This allows you to identify strong board members to move into board leadership and for others to work for three years.  If they are strong then ask them to be willing to serve for another three year term after having been off for a year.  It allows you to keep weak or difficult personalities off of your board, but keep them as advocates.  It also allows your board to get fresh ideas from new people more often, building new advocates.

Posted by Buncie Hay Lanners  on  02/19  at  08:02 AM

I like the phrase “how are you feeling about your board service.”  Nice and soft.

Here’s another one: “I know you haven’t been very active lately. Is there another way you’d like to serve our organization instead of as a board member?”

This is a tact taken by one of the best nonprofit leaders I know in Raleigh NC where I live. He said that most people are “relieved” when he approaches them.

Posted by Gail Perry  on  02/19  at  08:38 AM

I may be misinterpreting, but based on the reader e-mail, it sounds like running in the election means that these individuals will be guaranteed a place on the board. It seems to be so common that so few candidates step forward, those running are ‘shoe-ins’. So in addition to the great advice presented here, I think emphasis and effort need to be placed on recruiting/cultivating qualified nominees. Knowing that they ‘won’ a role is certainly more motivating than having walked into it with no effort.

Posted by Marlene Oliveira  on  02/19  at  10:21 AM

I am fortunate to work with an amazing board that holds one another accountable and I question if it should even be a staff member (Executive Director or otherwise) asking these questions.  I think a key to board member engagement is accountability amongst their peers on the board.  The questions are fantastic but should come from an engaged board member who shares the experience of balancing work and volunteer service, obligations to the board, etc.  I think staff (often not even the ED) get put in positions of having tough conversations that should be the responsibility of fellow board members when maybe our role needs to be empowering the board to ask these questions of each other.

Posted by Julie Bornhoeft  on  02/19  at  10:42 AM

Three things;
1. You should have term limits so that people understand they’re not Supreme Court justices. Beware calcification caused by low turnover.
2. Katya offers one model. But I can tell you many nonprofits struggle with what to do with those board members who are term limited or burned out but still want to be active. Perhaps you should create a project around finding meaningful work for emeritus volunteers. Where they can still be effective in roles other than governance.
3. I hope the person posing the question is a volunteer serving on the nominating committee, not a staff person. An effective board should have an effective nominating committee with the responsibility of asking board members about their intentions. (This last point is worthy of a blog post all by itself.)

Posted by Glenn  on  02/19  at  12:33 PM

I’ll be honest - this is a little too “kid gloves” for me and would drive me crazy if I were the board member looking to find their place in an organization.

I’d prefer board job descriptions and regular 360 degree review cycles, just like staff and other key volunteers. If it isn’t working out, something needs to happen before the board term is up for renewal.

Changing a board member’s role does not mean demotion - it means finding a better way for the org to celebrate their passion and talents. No one wants to feel like a sore thumb.

Having written that, I know that I’ve really struggled to find time to implement this. But it is on the agenda for 2013!

Posted by Jennifer Waggoner  on  02/19  at  03:51 PM

I agree that these types of conversations should be done by the Chair or Vice-Chair, not the Director, though they should talk the issues through beforehand.

Board members should have a job description and person specification.  And where possible under the constitution, vacancies should be advertised to attract a wide field of candidates. 

I agree with many of the other points.  I’m speaking from a UK governance perspective.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/19  at  04:04 PM

I agree completely with Jennifer’s comment regarding annual 360 evaluations.  In addition, I encourage boards to include board member performance metrics.  No board member should be unclear about how he or she is “measuring up” as the term end approaches.  And boards should have a good idea of each candidate’s performance before election time.  This builds a performance-based culture and greater transparency.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/19  at  06:20 PM

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