Getting back on track
Your board of directors or trustees may not be functioning as well as it could if you're experiencing any of the following:
- Board members show up late or unprepared to meetings
- Board meetings take longer than they should
- Making even simple decisions is difficult
- Most of the work is done by just a few board members
If any of these sound familiar, you may be dealing with a board that's mentally checked out. Don't despair. It's possible to turn things around. Here's help getting your board back on track.
What causes board members to disengage?
Board members may not fully appreciate or understand the responsibilities they assumed when they agreed to serve. Having a written board member job description and procedures for onboarding new members can help with that.
However, the problem is rarely quite so simple. Often there are bigger organizational issues at play, such as a disconnect between the organization's objectives and its culture. For example, a strong executive director or chief executive (possibly the founder) may act in ways that inadvertently signal to the board that they're expected to approve requests, budgets and agendas without getting too deep into the details.
But to meet its obligations, a board must ask questions — even when things are going smoothly and management appears to have everything under control. A board can only make responsible decisions when it has access to all relevant information and feels free to ask questions and push back on assumptions.
When a board is underperforming, the executive director or chief executive and the board chair need to take a hard look at their own behavior. How well do they work together? Do they model collaboration? Are they able to air differences of opinion?
Leadership's actions, more than their words, set the tone for other board members. A board chair who shows up late or unprepared for a meeting, for example, sends a message that the board's work isn't deserving of his or her full attention. A board chair who asks no or only superficial questions may be setting the expectation that the board's role is to rubber-stamp whatever management proposes.
A routinely unanimous board may signal that members are afraid to disagree or don't take their roles seriously. Where differing views are discouraged or characterized as negative thinking, accountability is also suppressed.
Dealing with a disruptive member
Occasionally a board member will be so destructive or divisive that it's necessary to consider removing him or her from the board. Note that espousing an unpopular view is not grounds for removal. Rather, what warrants intervention are repeated attempts to hijack meetings with one's own agenda, refusing to allow others to speak, or habitually using offensive language or engaging in rude or abusive behavior.
The first step in such a situation is to attempt one-to-one coaching with the member, preferably by the board chair or another board member. If that isn't effective, the next step may be to suggest that the member take a leave of absence until his or her term of office ends. This approach has the advantage of allowing the disruptive member to leave on his or her own terms.
When all else fails, it may be necessary to initiate formal action to remove a board member by vote. Before taking this step, it's important to consult your organization's bylaws or other governing documents. Comprehensive bylaws will include a provision for dealing with just such a circumstance. For example, in some organizations a board member can be removed by a two-thirds vote of the board at a regularly scheduled board meeting.
Removing a disruptive member isn't a panacea for a dysfunctional board, however — and scapegoating a departing member is unprofessional and counterproductive. Instead, the board should take a step back to reflect on what's working and what's not.
It can be as simple as having board members complete a questionnaire to evaluate how well they feel the board is fulfilling its functions. With the results, the board chair and the executive director or chief executive then lead a discussion about what's going well and where there are opportunities for improvement.
If the situation is too fraught for the executive director to facilitate a board self-assessment, it may be best to bring in a consultant to lead the board through the self-assessment and subsequent creation of an action plan.
Prevention is the best medicine
No one expects new staff members to know everything the day they walk in the door. It's no different for board members — yet they're often thrown into their role with little preparation.
Before potential members agree to join the board, they should be given a job description to review. They should be able to ask questions and talk with current board members to get a good sense of the organization and its leadership.
How new board members are brought into the board culture sets expectations and helps foster engagement. You might assign new board members a "board buddy" to act as a mentor for the first few meetings. Sharing minutes from the previous year's meetings can help new members get up to speed.
Also ask why they joined. Some people join boards to share their professional expertise. Others want to do something completely different from their day job. It's worth taking the time to learn what new members hope to gain from their time on the board. Armed with this information, you can make committee and other assignments that are more likely to appeal to new members and support engagement from the outset.
MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.
StarChapter: Make or break? The unmotivated board (2015)
Stanford Social Innovation Review: A better board will make you better by Kim Jonker and William F. Meehan III (2014)
National Council of Nonprofits: Board engagement
The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Five reasons board leaders should have term limits by Rick Moyers (2011)
Blue Avocado: Four ways to remove a board leader by Jan Masaoka
NEW: Solutions for Nonprofits: How do we remove a disruptive nonprofit board member?
Nonprofit Hub: How to remove a nonprofit board member by Lincoln Arneal
Forbes: Four steps to saving a nonprofit from its own board of directors by Ted Gavin (2012)
National Council of Nonprofits: Tip sheet for candid discussions about board governance
Center for Nonprofit Leadership: Board of directors' assessment