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Terrible Board Members Are Created, Not Born

So much has been written and presented within the nonprofit world about how to work around and/or replace terrible board members. However, nobody seems to want to confess as to where they came from.

Over the last three decades I have had the honor and sometimes the frustration of serving on more than 15 different nonprofit boards, where I’ve seen first-hand how poor board members can be created by terrible board practices. Do not get me wrong - the goods far outweigh the bads!

Unfortunately, too many negative situations have unfolded right before my eyes.

This is indeed a shame when you consider how successful board members typically are in their own professions. Most of them have the capacity to be above average - if not outstanding - board members!

Below I’ve outlined some of the practices that can cause a good board member to go bad. As you will see, such negative habits and oversights can literally turn outstanding board members into terrible ones, and quickly.

No Board Orientation or Written Board Member Expectations

Shockingly, only a portion of the nonprofit boards I have served upon provided both of the above items.

A board orientation is a springboard to success for every situation I have seen it used in. Such an orientation sets the stage for better understanding of the mission, what is happening in the board meetings, what committees are in place and are used for, and - perhaps most important - what is expected of the new board member.

The best orientations I have been part of are 3-4 hours long and take place before attending the first board meeting. They usually involve the board chairman and/or standing committee heads as well as key staff members of the charity. Such orientations lead to much better understanding and, in most cases, increased involvement by the board member.

A key outcome or deliverable of the orientation is a written set of expectations for each new board member. These expectations should also be renewed annually. The written expectations are often in conjunction with possible conflict of interest statements.

These expectations should include basics like meeting attendance, committee involvement, time commitments and more advanced items like fundraising involvement, volunteer activities and of course, personal giving. This document should be reviewed and signed prior to the first board meeting.

A signed requirements document for board membership establishes clear expectations for everyone.

Holding Board Meetings With No Agenda or Timeline

An agenda is a must, but it is the timeline that is most often missing.

The timeline allows the board chairman to make the decision to borrow time from a topic or two if needed to make up for the topics that go over their allotted time.

If they are about to go way over, you may need to create an ad hoc committee to explore and report back at the next meeting or save for the longer time period of a board retreat.

Yes, I have been in board meetings that have continued on for two or more hours past the stated ending time. This is usually not good for most of the board members and has always been the case when there is no written timeline present. Please keep in mind busy board members have made a special allotment of time for your meeting and we need to respect such allotment.

Making Quarterly Operation Reports the Center of Each Board Meeting

It's okay to report at a high level what is going on with operations. However, massive spreadsheets with scores of numbers are only meaningful to the folks managing the particular area being reported upon and hopefully the executive director of the nonprofit.

Boring the board members in your meetings by making it a lecture rather than a discussion can make any of them non-attentive. After several such meetings it is no wonder they start skipping meetings.

If you want to share a few operational reports, my preference is a high-level scorecard based upon a traffic light metaphor. Pick no more than 5-10 key metrics to show in the scorecard. Compare them to the most recent time period reported as well as the previous year and most importantly the budget. If it is within budget, color or shade it in green. If it is within 10% of the budget, color or shade it in yellow. If the particular metric missed the budget by more than 10%, it should be in red.

The board chairman should focus the discussion on only the areas in red, or maybe a single yellow or two if it is deemed a critical area. An example of critical area would be fundraising revenue or a critical measurement affecting your mission success.

Not Holding Strategic Discussions or Exploring the Charity’s Mission

Close your eyes and think about the very best board meetings you have been part of. I am betting you were part of a lively, if not downright loud, discussion about a topic strategic to the charity or a testimonial about what the mission is at it’s very core.

Do not be worried about a strategic discussion that leads to opposing viewpoints. It is fine to not always have unanimous voting on motions. That is why you recruited a diverse board!

Such debates lead to clarification of key issues and makes every single board member feel involved and needed.

It also leads to much better attendance because they will not want to miss anything that exhilarating.

Sometimes strategic discussions are primary to enhancing board member understanding. One of personal favorites for a strategic discussion is exploring the charity’s current donor retention rate and what factors are influencing it!

Executive Committees

The use of an executive committee destroys the meaning of truly being a full board member of any organization. What I am about to say may sound harsh, but perhaps every board would be stronger and more engaged if this advice was followed: dump your executive committee immediately.

If you do not need my brain and my opinion on critical matters, and you only want me to rubber stamp what a few people think, then just make the board the size of the former executive committee and leave me out.

No Current or Annually Updated Strategic Plan

Yes, I saved a truly important one for last.

The mere exercise of creating and then keeping a strategic plan in place is more than essential for any nonprofit. It is literally the blueprint for the board and staff to follow daily. It helps guide and influence important decisions as well as keeping the core mission and objectives in the forefront and on track.

Should the core ingredients of the strategic plan be debated? Absolutely! Should they be reviewed and updated from time to time? Without a doubt! This is what leads to an involved and strategically aligned group of board members!


Now you have my confessions regarding the actions that can create terrible board members. You may not agree with all of them, but perhaps you recognize several actions, which might have changed your board members. Even with witnessing such actions here and there, I can truthfully say every single board experience has allowed me to personally grow. In fact, each one has given me far more in return than I have given in my time, talents and treasure!

Jay Love Jay Love

The preceding is a guest post by Jay Love, Co-Founder and CEO of Bloomerang, which helps nonprofit organizations to reach, engage, and retain the advocates they depend on to achieve their vision for a better world. A veteran of the nonprofit technology sector, Jay is a founding member of the AFP Business Member Council and chair of the AFP Ethics Committee.

Topics: Senior Executive Issues