For a nonprofit organization, a board member can either be a valuable resource or a tremendous distraction. Effective board members can add to organizational effectiveness, infusing keen insight and ideas into the organization’s operations. Conversely, ineffective board members can circumvent communication channels, lengthen board meetings, and create significant breakdowns in governance which can increase the organization’s risk and lead to internal turnover and loss of opportunities.
With over 200 nonprofit clients, we have dealt with the full gamut of board members, from very effective ones, to ones that we have pushed executive management to the verge of jumping. If you find that your board has one of these challenging board members, here are some ideas on how to effectively deal with them.
1. Timely communication is important …
In any relationship, communication is the most important thing. This is no different between a board and organizational management. If you have a board member that is not meeting expectations/not performing his or her responsibilities, is a disruptive force, or has done something to put your organization at risk, don’t wait to discuss it with him or her. As soon as you witness or become aware of an issue, contact the person and have a direct conversation. This is not always easy, but it is essential if you are going to effectively change behavior. The worst thing you can do is send an email with a list of issues and start an email battle. Put yourself in the shoes of the board member. Wouldn’t you like the courtesy of an in-person conversation? It gives you the best opportunity to have an open, honest discussion.
2. It’s all about the mission, not the ego …
We always advise our board members to keep the organization’s mission in front of them when making decisions at board meetings. The focus should always be what’s best for the organization in meeting its mission. Board members need to leave their egos at the board room door … it’s not about them, it’s about how they can effectively help the organization. If you have a board member that is not focused on the best interest of the organization, you need them to change their behavior, not because they are not a good person, but because doing so will better serve the organization and the overall impact it has.
3. Provide examples …
When communicating issues, be clear and specific in your communication, using specific examples where possible. Specific examples help to get your message and point across much easier and clearer. Rather than saying “You have been an ineffective board member, not following protocols and being disruptive.” It would be more effective to use examples such as:
- “Last week, you called the organization’s controller and requested a significant amount of financial information, even though the proper protocol is to pass all requests through the organization’s CEO. This resulted in delays in getting financial reporting to the bank.”
- “You agreed to procure $5,000 in donations for the organization, and you have not brought in any resources in to date. The organization budgeted for board support from each of the board members. This is essential for the organization to meet its budget and fulfill its mission.”
Specific examples allow a board member to better understand the nature of the issue and can serve as a springboard for a fruitful conversation rather than start a defensive argument.
4. Discuss impact of their behavior …
Help board members understand how their behavior is having an impact on the organization; whether that be disrupting meetings, improperly deploying resources, not meeting agreed upon tasks, etc. In addition, try to deliver the message in a non-combative way.
5. Don’t just talk, listen …
Present your case then shut up. Give the board member a chance to process what you said and talk. What you perceive as a problem, might just be a misunderstanding. Maybe he or she didn’t realize that all communication was required to go through the CEO and a simple conversation will solve the problem. Even if not, letting the person have his or her say will allow you both to fully explore the issue and come to a resolution that fits both of your needs – and most importantly, moves your mission forward.
These types of conversations are not easy, as a result we tend to shy away from them. Unfortunately, not dealing with issues when they occur can have a significant negative impact on the organization.
Kenneth R. Cerini, CPA, CFP, FABFA
Ken is the Managing Partner of Cerini & Associates, LLP and is the executive responsible for the administration of our not-for-profit and educational provider practice groups. In addition to his extensive audit experience, Ken has been directly involved in providing consulting services for nonprofits and educational facilities of all sizes throughout New York State in such areas as cost reporting, financial analysis, Medicaid compliance, government audit representation, rate maximization, board training, budgeting and forecasting, and more.