10 Steps to Follow to Make Your Nonprofit Board Better

Last week we discussed how to deal with a previously high-value nonprofit board member who has become difficult, argumentative, and even divisive over time. We reviewed approaches you might take to address the situation and looked at some possible strategies on how to move forward, preferably with the director remaining on board but back on track.You can find that article here and if you’re struggling with your board, it would be helpful to read it in addition to this one.

But in this article, we’re going to discuss a different — and sometimes even trickier — type of board challenge—the board member who may have been helpful earlier but doesn’t really fit the bill anymore. Or worse yet, maybe they never really did. It could be a friend or family member that has been on the board since the nonprofit started, or that volunteer that helped so much it was difficult to say no when they asked for a spot on the board.

You know your board, so chances are, you know that person. Whatever the reason they got there, you’ve known for a while it’s not a good fit and you’re thinking of removing them. But what do you do? How do you go about thinking through this tough challenge? This person may be a neighbor, family member, close friend, great volunteer, etc. How do you remain true to your leadership responsibilities, dedicated to moving the organization in the direction it needs to go, and at the same time preserve those vital relationships?

Here are 10 Critical Elements to help you move forward:

  1. First, remember there really is no one best way to approach board challenges like this one. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other nonprofit leaders in your circle of advisors and colleagues before taking any specific action.
  2. Don’t forget that this director was allowed, and possibly even actively recruited, onto your board and has served loyally and provided value during an earlier phase of their service. They may have even been one of the few who believed in you early on and worked hard as part of your start up team. That kind of trust and loyalty must be honored during this time. 
  3. Once it becomes obvious something has to change, don’t delay the conversation. Tough conversations only get trickier over time. 
  4. It’s essential to know your intentions before having this conversation, to remain calm and professional during the conversation, and to have a clear plan-of-action following the discussion. 
  5. Respect your colleague by being straight with them, whichever way your conversation may end up. People can sense condescension and you wavering, so be honest and be sure to have facts and examples ready when speaking with them. Strive to remain respectful and authentic, and be an active listener when they speak. 
  6. Be sure to begin with a heartfelt thank you and display of appreciation for all they have done. You might tell them you have some other thoughts on ways where they can use their specific talents, skills or experience, to better help the organization going forward. 
  7. You could begin by asking them how they feel about their board service and how they feel things are going.  They may actually provide you with an “off ramp” for their service if their lives have gotten busier in other areas. Sometimes, directors are ready to step down either for personal reasons or they feel board service  has become so complex that they no longer enjoy it or feel they are able to contribute to the discussions in meaningful way. 
  8. If not, then this is where you’ll need to explain that you feel the board needs some changes. It isn’t personal, it is what you feel the strategy and current situation calls for so the agency can remain strong and meet the challenges the environment has put before you. 
  9. If they resist leaving the board, you can explain their service to the agency does not have to end, just change. They can still provide valuable help in other ways. 
  10. You can direct the conversation by explaining what you see from your perspective about his or her service. Here it will be critical to have facts backing up any opinion you have. Whether you see it as a problem with their follow-through and reliability, wholehearted support of the mission, “fit” for where the agency is headed, or sensing the agency’s needs from the board have passed them by, now is the time to get your thinking on the table.Assure them, however, that you remain committed to working towards the one goal of building a stronger, more impactful agency, and to do this you need the ability to make changes when — in your judgement — they are in the best interest of the agency.Remind them they are not being booted off of the team, they are being asked to contribute in a different manner. Your hope is that they will recognize your need to make the tough calls from time to time and that they can continue to play an active and positive role in helping to move the organization forward, while wearing a different hat. Let them help brainstorm and shape their new role by offering ideas on how they can continue in the future.

Here are 5 things you can use to help support, structure, and drive your conversation.

    1. Facts on the ground dictate certain changes to your board, your direction, or your programs. Staying “here” is no longer an option. The pain and danger of staying “here” is unacceptable so the agency has to go “from here to there”.
    2. The board as currently comprised is unable to support you or give you what you need to get to the next level so some changes are necessary. Your latest strategic plan, as developed by the board itself, may help validate your need to change the board composition as you face your next growth phase
    3. Your need for a new mix of skill sets on the board to take the agency to the next level will require other changes on the board as others’ terms expire.
    4. A set term of office gives you the responsibility to rethink board composition, where things are, where they need to go, and what is needed from the board to get there
    5. Assuming they still want to engage and be apart of the agency, assure them there are valuable ways to do so, like special projects, serving on an Advisory Board, committee help, ambassador, etc.

This is not an easy conversation to have or to pull off successfully. I’ve been in this situation and struggled with it myself. But as the leader your job is to make the tough decisions and call things as you see them. Remember, all the other board members, staff, etc are watching you and looking to see if you consistently do the right thing. Are you addressing known and observed problems or mis-fits or are you avoiding them?

If you want to learn more about the strength of your board and organization, and if it might be time to make some tough calls, this nonprofit assessment may help.

Do you consistently do what’s best for your agency and your clients? If not, how can you expect others to do so?