Have you looked at a board member's name and thought, "When did we see that person last?" Or do you have board members who show up physically at meetings but aren't working on any projects, don't participate in discussions, and haven't contributed in any way to the board's work?
Most nonprofit boards have deadwood at one time or another. And many nonprofit leaders suffer some degree of angst in deciding what to do about it. Can we get the person off the board voluntarily? If we force him or her off the board, will there be repercussions from other board members or stakeholders? The best test to get over any self-doubt about pruning deadwood from your board is to ask yourself, "What could we accomplish if we had an active, energetic, and engaged board member in that slot?"
Inactive board members aren't necessarily bad people. They may, in fact, have actively contributed to the board's work early in their tenure. Life changes and priorities shift. Maybe they've over-committed, or maybe the work of the board has changed enough to leave these board members behind. There are also board members who looked great on paper when they were recruited but for whatever reason never really engaged and or found their role on the board.
When confronted with deadwood on your board, it's worth stepping back and trying to determine why a member is not active. It's possible that the situation can be remedied. Perhaps you need to have a conversation about expectations for board members, offer a new committee assignment, or even suggest a short sabbatical from the board to resolve business or personal issues that are monopolizing the board member's time.
When you've exhausted the possibilities of firing up an inactive board member, it's time to look at how to graciously remove him or her from the board and free up that slot. It's important that this be a board-driven process and not simply the executive director's initiative. If the executive director takes the lead, it's akin to firing the boss (which may be tempting at times, but not very practical). Certainly the executive director should be aware of what's happening, and he or she might actually be helping in the background.
A little research is called for at this point. When does the board member's term expire? The best time to ask someone to vacate the board is when the end of his or her term is coming up; in fact, you can just not renew the term. A corollary would be to evaluate all board members' activity levels as terms expire and address inactive board members then. Hopefully the bylaws clearly define terms for board members. Two-year terms are the most common, but there are other durations.
Ideally when the end of board members' terms are coming up, the board chair can call them individually to discuss their recommitment to the board. A conversation with an inactive board member can discuss whether or not his or her situation will be changing or if he or she has an interest in continuing on the board in a more active role. If the board member has disengaged so much that a phone conversation isn't possible or practical, the board chair should write a letter. The letter can thank the board member for past service, state that the chair is sorry that the member hasn't been able to participate more, and note that the term will not be renewed. It should also say to let the chair know if the board member's situation changes in the future and he or she would like to reengage with the board.
I've had very interesting experiences with these phone calls and letters—all very positive! Never have I had a (soon to be former) board member get upset. They seemed to be looking for a gracious way to exit an organization that they've lost interest in and appreciated the ability to go quietly. There's almost a sigh of relief. And from the organization's standpoint, there's now an open board slot to fill with new blood!
The preceding is a guest post by Bill Hoffman. Bill has more than 30 years' expertise in various aspects of the nonprofit sector, having worked at all levels of nonprofit organizations, including serving as chief executive of a $6 million education foundation for 9 years. He and his firm have written and presented on topics ranging from board development to community and volunteer engagement, organizational development and performance, and best practices in national, regional, and state publications and symposia.