Every so often, I hear about tough, demanding boards but nothing like a board I recently “met” through a friend who also serves as the CEO of a separate, very successful, well-mannered nonprofit agency. My friend told me about the rude, abrasive, unruly practices a different board had, including a confrontational, in-your-face, no-fun board style. My friend asked, “How do I keep my board from becoming like this one?

I believe the answer to this question is something many boards often overlook when they are first created or hold periodic planning sessions. Most nonprofits have a mission statement and a vision statement. They often have a plan for what they want to do but the one important component of their founding documents they often lack is a set of values. 

Values are the ground rules for how the organization is run. They stipulate acceptable behavior for everyone involved with the agency–staff, board, volunteers–everyone. A few common values you find in many organizations and nonprofits include:

  • Integrity
  • Respect
  • Honesty
  • Transparency
  • Excellence

You can fill in the blanks to add more but you get the picture. With a set of these proposed and generic values in hand, everyone then takes the opportunity to describe in his/her own words just what each value looks like when they see it or how they know when one is being practiced. This helps clarify just what the values mean on a “gut level”, exactly what each value means to people personally. It helps embed the values into each person’s DNA so they become everyone’s default response when something happens.

Values are powerful tools when developed collaboratively, without any undue pressure, and are accepted by leadership and the board. They represent the collective opinions of the leadership team and the board on how everyone will conduct him/her-self while carrying out their responsibilities.

Annual reviews of all board members and staff should include how well they lived out the values over the past year. That reinforces each value, especially if someone is called onto the carpet for violating one or gets public recognition or special one-time “bonus” when going the extra mile performing one.

Now, back to my friend’s question. With a set of approved values in hand it is altogether proper to confront a rogue board member or board members who are becoming abusive, dictatorial or just plain unreasonable by pointing out that everyone, including them, had agreed to live by certain values which they were now violating. In most cases, that should be enough to ease tensions and bullying and set the stage to address the issues in a civil manner.

There is no place for abusive or over-the-top behavior anywhere, but especially nonprofit boards.

What do you think? What other tools are available? How can my friend preserve her board’s honest, spirited discussions and not allow them to erode into ugly confrontations? Let me hear from you and feel free to share this post!