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Don't Wait: 3 Tips To Deal With Difficult Or Disengaged Board Members

Disengaged Board Members
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We bring on board members with high hopes and expectations. They tell us they have a passion for the mission and want to help. They gladly sign the roles and responsibilities agreement.

At a minimum, it states they will attend meetings, volunteer at events and programs, make a financial gift, support the fundraising efforts of the organization, take part in strategic planning sessions, and be an ambassador of the cause around town.

We believe them. We trust them . . . so we nominate them, orientate them, applaud their approval, toast to their joining, announce their arrival to our supporters in a newsletter, and give them everything they need to be engaged, high-impact board members.

All is good—for a while. But then, there’s always “that one.” For them, the shiny façade of board membership begins to fade and the member’s true colors start to emerge. Nice Dr. Jekyll turns into ghoulish Mr. Hyde. Sometimes they are conversation hijackers, or meeting dominators, or they steamroll anyone who dares to challenge them.

They can be defensive, divisive, disrespectful, unreasonable, or discourteous. They can have huge egos and personalities that make it difficult to work with them. They are disruptive to board work. They erode culture.

Some board members aren’t difficult or disruptive, they’re just disengaged. They think nothing of blowing off meetings, showing up late to events, making a token donation (or none at all), and ignoring emails. They’re quick to say board members are “volunteers” and that all the work should be done by staff because staff is paid to do the work. They require constant prodding and provide little value. We wonder, “Why is this person even on the board?”

We’ve all had to work with difficult board members, but how do you manage them?

Well, it’s not easy and you must handle it delicately. Here are a few things you can do to deal with difficult or disengaged board members:

1. Rally other board members (hopefully a board majority) to champion your efforts to deal with the board member. Call a private meeting, have a conference call, or a Zoom call to discuss a plan of action.

2. Develop and execute a simple “accountability policy” to address the board member’s actions and behaviors. This policy should follow a very specific process. For example, a disruptive board member might first get a call from the board chair. For a second offense, they might receive a letter from the executive committee. For the third offense, they might have to meet with the executive committee. For the fourth offense, the board chair might ask the member to resign — gracefully, of course.

Or, for board members who are disengaged but not disruptive, the board chair might offer the member a chance to migrate to a different role (e.g., committee member, advisory board, honorary board, or program volunteer).

3. Whether you ask a member to resign or migrate to a different role, you want to manage the process and conversations tactfully and graciously. Remember, your brand is at stake. If a board member leaves pissed off, they might start spreading rumors about how horrible your board and organization is. Not good.

If someone is asked to resign and does, you may want to have a farewell party, or acknowledge them for their service in some special way. A little validation will go a long way toward goodwill once they’re gone, or if they move into a different role.

Here are few things you can do before nominating a board member to lower the risk of difficult behavior:

  1. Have a “detailed” roles and responsibilities agreement. It should clearly outline participation requirements, obligations, and expectations of work, responsibilities, behavior, and attitudes. Review the agreement with the board member before they sign it. Have all board members review and sign the agreement each year.
  2. Conduct due diligence on board members before nominating them. Make reference calls to other boards they’ve served on. Call people who have worked with the nominee.
  3. Have a policy that requires board members to volunteer for 4 to 6 months before their full nomination goes to the board for a vote. This way, you can see how “authentically” passionate they are about the mission, and observe their actions, behavior, and character.
  4. Have an accountability policy (see above) that outlines exactly what actions the board will take if a board member is not fulfilling his or her roles and responsibilities, or if they are disruptive, discourteous, or disrespectful. This policy, like your roles and responsibilities agreement, should be read and signed by each board member before they are nominated, and again every year by all board members.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind, good behavior begets good behavior. On my boards, we don’t tolerate discourteous, disrespectful, or disengaged board members.

It doesn’t matter how long the board member has been a member, or how much money they’ve donated, or how many hours they’ve volunteered. We have a zero tolerance policy. It’s part of our culture. And because of this, my boards are high-performing boards that are engaged, effective, and still have fun!

Your star board members are too busy doing noble work to get sidetracked by these issues.

Therefore, I urge you to stand strong and do what is right, not what is convenient or easy. Rally your champions and start taking action today! The work you’re doing is too important not to.

BONUS: Free Accountability Policy Template

I’ll happily send you an Accountability Policy template. Simply send an email to [email protected] and include your contact info. Put “Accountability Policy” in the subject line.

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