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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 difficult board members — 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 secured 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 secured 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 five 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!

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  • jhonson

    Effectively managing challenging board members is key to a harmonious organization. These 5 tips provide valuable insights for navigating relationships, fostering collaboration, and ensuring a productive dynamic within the board.
  • Linda Wastyn

    Shirley: I'm sorry you have to go through this, I would have a conversation with the president to clarify expectations. Do you have job descriptions? Do you have clear expectation documents? I think both of those would help to avoid this type of situation in the future. Frankly, your president sounds like a bully. A board should work more like a cooperative not a dictatorship. I would try to explain your position with the president and decide if this is a good fit and the type of situation you want to put yourself in. Good luck!
  • Shirley

    As a one month new board member with no experience I was asked to take the minutes of the board meeting and the homeowners meeting in the absence of the secretary. I told the president I did not know how to take the minutes and therefore was sorry and refused. The president said “My expectation of the board member is to do what the President asks in order to do the best for the homeowner members”. After further comments a computer was mentioned and I don’t have one so I was finally released from taking the minutes. The officers are trying to add to the bylaws that a director can be removed for cause. Then list all the causes and disobedience is one of them. Could this be a way to remove me or anyone who refuses to do as told. Im not a child and I feel I have the right to refuse something I’m not comfortable doing. Thank you in advance for any kind of guidance.
  • J. Galvin

    Make a motion to change by-law disciplinary procedure to subject the sender of any email or other communication among board members to a disciplinary procedure for uncivil communications.
  • A L R

    Question regarding of civility: One board member writes an email to the entire board of 5, criticizing the behavior of another board member at a meeting, calling her out as disrespectful and obnoxious . . . wasting his time with questions at a meeting with at vendor who attended the meeting in order to explain the complicated Insurance Policy. In this email, he also suggested that the board member with the questions resign if she can not "improve her behavior". (As another board member, I perceived nothing disrespectful out of board member with the questions) .
  • David Baker

    What should the penalty be for board members leave duly called meetings.
  • Forum

    We are having some disput between one of our excutive memeber and two floor our forum members donate some cash and ask the first people to write down their names should get the money but one of the excutive member donate and give names of those that will get while a floor member write under her comment and said that her own will not be different which makes the excutive member to private chat her and told her that she is talking bullshit. And the for member told that she don't have sence by private chatting her and the excutive member involve her sister to the case that got her insulting the president then the excutive exist the sister from the forum for 48hrs due to the existing of her sister that excutive member exist the matter brought to us the disciplinary committe how can we handle it and who is guity.nb in that forum we donate and don't give names of people to get it.
  • M. Linda Wastyn

    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
  • Diana

    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
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