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October 25, 2020
Don’t Let a Difficult Board Member Erode Your Nonprofit
By Maureen K. Robinson

Stop Ahead
The difficult board member—someone who acts like a black hole inside the organization, absorbing energy and good will—can be overcome if the board deliberately builds a culture of productivity, guards it carefully, and knows how to self-correct when problems materialize.

It takes only one difficult board member to establish a dynamic that leaves board members and executives demoralized and distracted. However, the other members can use their power intentionally for the benefit of the organization and, as important, for the benefit of the board itself, to combat this.

These individuals come in all types, from the inexplicably malevolent to the innocently self-absorbed, unaware of their power to derail and dismay. Executive directors go to enormous lengths to anticipate where—in any meeting or conversation—they are likely to find themselves vulnerable or on the defensive, while board members practice their blank looks and exit lines.

How much power will the board sacrifice to politeness, and how much unhappiness will be endured by both board and staff to avoid direct action?

When capable people sit in a room and watch as one individual—or a handful—wastes their time, demolishes the staff’s work, or actively prevents the board itself from getting its work done, power has definitely changed hands to the detriment of everyone.

Solving the dilemma usually entails giving up the comfort and safety of the elaborate but unwritten rules that shape behavior among peers and finding the courage to speak up and speak out. It may also mean taking direct action and asking the difficult board member to reconsider his or her membership.

The Antidote to Difficult

These practices help the board guard against erosion and instill self-correcting mechanisms when problems arise.

Clear standards: If the board is productive, it is because it has some basic ground rules and values that keep it that way. If listening carefully, being constructive, and behaving with respect to everyone in the organization have been the secrets to past success, they are likely to be the secrets to future success. Why be shy about rules and values? Communicate them early in the relationship and don’t be shy about repeating them when circumstances warrant.

Everyone leads: While the chair may have taken on the formal responsibility for managing the board’s work and productivity, the other board members are not spectators. Every board member has a duty to discourage unseemly or unproductive behavior. Avoid dysfunctional politeness, respectfully challenge behavior that is disruptive, destructive, or out of line, and help the board re-establish its equilibrium.

Collective action: Ideally, everyone is leading in the boardroom and not in the parking lot after the meeting; nevertheless, sometimes it is useful to call around and take the pulse of other board members. What distinguishes these conversations from parking lot hubbub is a decision to take positive action to preserve the board’s integrity and bring stability to the organization.

Hang on to the buck: The executive director may be experiencing the brunt of a difficult board member’s behavior but the problem is a board problem and needs to find a solution within the board. Don’t pass the buck. The executive director can do little but make herself and her staff as small a target as possible and hope the board does its job.

Thank you and goodbye: When all else fails, take a hint from “the Donald” #147; fire the offending board member. Chronic dissension is not healthy for the organization. Good board members become disgusted and leave; good executive directors and staff do the same.

People need to be given the reasons a separation is in the best interest of the organization and a chance to resign with dignity. However, when reasonable efforts have failed to bring about a productive resolution to the problems presented by a difficult board member, the board must act to protect itself and the organization.

Difficult vs. Challenging

Before solving a problem, make sure that you have one. Every board member who rocks the board is not by definition “difficult.” The board may be experiencing a productive challenge to the status quo.

Board members can easily get too comfortable and complacent with one another, creating a culture that works for current members but leaves the future capacity or leadership of the board unattended.

Inviting change into the room can disturb the atmosphere and make some feel less valued and secure. Certain taboos get breached—talking about fundraising, holding board members’ “feet to the fire”—and feathers get ruffled.

While change may be difficult, the people who embody this change or help to hurry it along are not necessarily difficult themselves. This is particularly true if the process by which they have been invited to join the board has been motivated by a deliberate desire to recalibrate the board’s capacity and talent, or habits.

In this instance, there has been an agreement within the board about the nature and need for the changes being sought, and a little pleasure should be mixed with the discomfort of seeing change take shape meeting by meeting, decision by decision.

Founders and Funders

When founders or funders constitute the difficult board member, the choices can be limited and less than satisfactory: make the effort to change behavior, attempt individually and collectively to offset it in some way, take a deep breath, plan for better times, or quietly hit the road.

Founders in particular present unique problems when they become toxic. The very things that have made them successful are the qualities that will make their removal, either from the board or to a more benign place on it, difficult to achieve.

They usually have charm, tenacity, a core base of support, and a moral claim that require enormous fortitude to challenge, much less prevail against. Frankly, sometimes it is just not worth it. There has to be a lot at stake in terms of donors or beneficiaries to make the fight worth pursuing.

Funders, particularly very large funders, present a different problem and force the board to ask itself: Just how dependent are we on this individual’s largesse? Are we willing to risk its loss? Are we ready to step up and find comparable resources elsewhere?

Start Strong

The stronger the board, the better chance it has of avoiding problems altogether. To become strong and stay strong, continually be mindful of best practices:

Self-knowledge: The board knows its strengths and weaknesses and looks for ways to add capacity that will benefit the board and the organization.

Strategic and unhurried recruitment: Board members genuinely search for people who can add value and take the time to meet them, woo them, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and develop confidence that the fit will be successful.

Maureen K. Robinson is the author of Nonprofit Boards that Work: The End of One-Size-Fits-All Governance. This article is adapted from an article published in Contributions Magazine and is republished with permission.
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