5 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Board Members

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The bane or boon of many nonprofit executives’ existence: board members. Good ones make life so much easier and the nonprofit hum much more smoothly. But poor ones – or heaven forbid, destructive ones – can cause incredible turmoil and even threaten a nonprofit’s survival.

I have worked with awesome boards and some boards with room for improvement. If you find yourself with the latter situation, you need to first decide if the behavior or situation warrants confronting it. If you decide to confront the person, these five tips can help you deal with these difficult board members. They also apply to confronting a staff member, volunteer, client or spouse!

1. Confront the issue head on…. and in person.

Whether your board member does not perform his or her assigned roles, has a bad attitude or has done something to cast a pallor over your organization, don’t wait to discuss it with him or her. As soon as you witness or become aware of the issue, contact the person and have a frank discussion about the issue. More on how to have that difficult discussion below. But, – and this is key – have the discussion in person. The worst thing you can do is send an email with a list of offenses and start an email war. Think about the board member. If you sat in the board member’s seat, wouldn’t you like the courtesy of an in-person conversation? It gives you the best chance to have an open, honest dialogue.

2. Focus on the organization not the person.

Ask yourself what will allow you to best meet your organization’s mission and ask your board member to do the same. Even if you’ve become friends with your difficult board member (or started as friends), confronting a poor behavior becomes a business decision so focus the discussion on the business part of your relationship. You need them to change a behavior not because they are a bad person, but because doing so will better serve the organization and your clients.

3. Use specific examples.

Rather than vague generalities like “You obviously don’t care about the organization anymore,” be specific. Two problems with generalities. First, if I can demonstrate one caring act, I disprove your argument. Second, how can I can I change my behavior to “care more?”

Instead, describe behaviors:

  • “Last week, when you cancelled our meeting at the last minute, I felt like you no longer care about this organization.”
  • “You agreed to recruit five sponsors for our fundraiser and have not yet secure one.”

These can provide the start of a fruitful conversation rather than illicit a defensive argument. (Think of a childhood “did not” “did too” argument; that’s what specific examples avoid!)

4. Use “I-messages.”

The example above uses an “I-message” by describing the behavior in terms of its impact on you or your perceptions of it rather than as the “truth.” I-messages decrease defensiveness in the receiver who can feel attacked when you use “you-messages.” Think about the differences of these two statements:

  • “You agreed to recruit five sponsors for our fundraiser and have not yet secure one.”
  • “My notes say that you said you would recruit five sponsors for the fundraiser yet last I checked, you had not talked to anyone. I feel like you no longer care about this organization.”

Again, the latter example will likely begin a fruitful conversation while the former will make the person defensive, hurt feelings, and not achieve your goal of improving your organization. (“Did not.” “Did too.”)

5. Listen.

State your objection then shut up. Give the other person a chance to process your information and talk. What you perceive as a problem, might be a misunderstanding. Maybe he or she doesn’t recall agreeing to secure 5 sponsors 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.

Difficult conversations are called that for a reason: they are not easy! Because of that, we tend to shy away from them. But doing so, can hurt your organization and your relationship. Productivity suffers and resentments build. These steps should help make these difficult conversations more productive and, dare I say, easier!

As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to Living Proof Exhibit.

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Linda Wastyn
M. Linda Wastyn, Ph.D., President of Wastyn & Associates, has nearly 30 years of grant development and fundraising experience. Founded in 2011, Wastyn & Associates provides grant development, fundraising consulting, strategic planning facilitation, and leadership development for organizations across the country.
Linda Wastyn
By |2019-03-20T10:17:35-04:00August 16th, 2016|Nonprofit Boards|

2 Comments

  1. Diana January 6, 2020 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    We have a new president of our non profit organisation in Qld, he put out an email
    Stating it was from the committee, but we new nothing of it and he hadn’t asked us. What should we say to him

  2. M. Linda Wastyn January 12, 2020 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    Diane:

    You did not specify if you are staff or board and if the president is staff president or board president, but either way I would ask him about it, saying that you were not aware of the email message. Find out if he did this as an honest mistake or maliciously, but go into the conversation with an open mind. If it was an honest mistake, make sure he knows the appropriate protocol for communications that reference the board: who needs to review it, who needs to approve it, etc. If it was malicious, you will need to monitor and continue to review his conduct. If he’s the executive director (staff), you (as board) may need to take some actions; if he’s board president, then you may need to ask him to step down if he’s acting with malice. Hopefully it is an honest mistake that a conversation and some education can rectify. Good luck!

    Linda

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