unproductive board members

I travel across the country doing custom trainings, board retreats and speaking at conferences. When I ask how happy nonprofit staff are with their boards the room gets quiet.

People usually complain that board members aren’t fundraising or actively engaged. Most often their low participation often gets traced back to the board recruitment stage when expectations and fundraising responsibilities were downplayed. Even if fundraising expectations were properly set you may still have members new to fundraising and new to nonprofits who lack the confidence to fundraise. Your board members are not going to wake up tomorrow and start soliciting donors. You have to mobilize them, train them, coach them and provide support. Fundraising is staff-led, and board supported.  

Engaging board members in the mission and empowering them to fundraise is in your grasp but you must properly train and motivate them. This guide can walk you through step by step how to change your board culture. 

What if I need to let a non-performer go?    

You might be surprised to realize your board member is feeling frustrated and guilty that they cannot contribute in the way they are expected to or that they’d like to contribute. They may be feeling as conflicted about their service as you are.

How do I address poor performance?

You would address an employee’s poor performance with professional feedback. This situation is similar – the nonprofit is a business, and this is a business relationship and a professional situation. You would sit down with an employee and express concern about their performance compared to the agreed-upon performance expectations. The same is true for board members.    

What is the most important part of a board transition?

The most fundamental rule of any successful transition is to allow for a graceful exit. Regardless of whose fault it was, your primary job is to acknowledge the failure to properly set expectations. You must set the stage for them to bow out with grace, dignity and gratitude for their service. Show sensitivity to any health, personal, or professional issues, i.e. “Are you temporarily a lot busier than usual? Do you have the time?” Be prepared to offer less time-consuming ways to support the mission capacities such as serving on an ad hoc committee, consulting, or mentoring. If they have promise but just not the time consider giving them a leave of absence.   

Who should initiate the conversation?

The chair of your governance/nominating committee should initiate the conversation. If you do not have a governance committee it could be your board president or VP, but it should be a board member.    

How should I approach the conversation?

Treat this as a formal conversation, not as idle water cooler chatter. Show it the respect it deserves. Don’t have this conversation as a drive by before or after a board meeting.  

Be prepared to listen and keep an open mind. Don’t be so entrenched in your opinions that you leave out room for alternative viewpoints. Express genuine curiosity to understand their perspective, invite the other person to be a partner in figuring out a resolution, and address the problem without blame and assume a problem-solving stance. If emotions escalate, acknowledge that strong feelings mean we care.  

Be sympathetic but firm about agreed upon expectations. If they commit to improve how does that look? What will they do differently?  

If they resign show your gratitude not just from you but have the full board share their heartfelt thanks. You want them to exit with their head held high and have positive things to share about your organization and its leadership.  

How to set new board members up for success  

  1. Solicit feedback from new board members early on in their tenure with 30, 60 and 90-day check-ins so you can set the right expectations. If board service is not a good fit you can resolve it early.
  2. Assign a “board buddy” to new board members. Make sure their board buddy is a role model for service.
  3. Conduct a robust board orientation with a board member who positively embraces the role fundraising plays in the organization.  

Nonprofit Sustainability

Rachel Muir
Rachel Muir, CFRE transforms individuals into confident, successful fundraisers. When she was 26 years old, Rachel Muir launched Girlstart, a non-profit organization to empower girls in math, science, engineering and technology in the living room of her apartment with $500 and a credit card. Several years later she had raised over 10 million dollars and was featured on Oprah, CNN, and the Today show.