Tue, February 19 2013

Reader question: What to do with deadbeat board members?

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

Read more by this author

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!

  • Comments