Board Members Gone Wild

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 11th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

1 comment

I was recently asked, by a group of executive directors, how do you contain a rogue (my word, not theirs) board member.  (Not a new or uncommon question at all.)  A few days later, I got an email from a wonderful board president seeking time to speak with me for advice on how to deal with—you got it—a rogue (again, my word, not hers) board member.

If you have ever seen footage of the impact of a rogue elephant, you know the damage that one lone member of a herd can do.  The same is true of a rogue board member.  Left to do his/her “thing”, the very insidious seed of dysfunction and disruption is planted, and chaos surely follows.  Rogue board members, like their elephant equivalent, must be stopped — and quickly.

Obviously, the ideal is not to bring a rogue onto the board in the first place, but that can’t always be prevented.  The best prevention, though, is a strong recruitment process that brings new board members into a strong board culture.    The achievement of both is a joint process of board and executive director, led by the board, not the executive director.  Some things to which you should pay particular attention.

  • Make sure that before anyone comes on to the board, s/he understands and fully embraces the mission, first and foremost, and second, understands and embraces the organization’s core values; if your organization doesn’t have core values, define them immediately, and live by them.
  • How a board ultimately behaves is, to a very great extent, determined by how individual board members are recruited; do your recruitment process thoroughly, carefully and well and you decrease the chance of a board member, or a collective board, going off the deep end as s/he will know why s/he is there and what is right and wrong.  Once recruited, orient well to the organization and the role of the board, and evaluate individual and collective board performance annually.
  • Before any candidate is eligible for board service, s/he must understand management versus governance and which is the responsibility of the board and which of the executive director.  Naturally, current board members must understand this difference and be operating accordingly.
  • In recruiting, absolutely pay attention to the personality of the recruit.  It is not enough that you simply look to bring on skills, expertise and connections needed; you absolutely must pay attention to the persona that you are adding to the group that currently exists.
  • Consider requiring service on a committee for six months to a year before someone is even eligible to be considered for board service.  This gives you the opportunity to see who they really are and how they really operate.  This puts the probation period before the “hire”.
  • Have term limits for board members and for officers and enforce them; do not allow any one person to be there so long or in a position of “power “(board president, governance committee chair, etc.) so long that s/he and others see that person as the leader”.  Nonprofits are not governed by a leader; nonprofits are governed by a group of leaders—the full board.
  • Selection of a board member (or any officer) should never be a popularity contest, or a decision to settle.  Selection of board members (and leaders) must be strategic based on what is needed in on the board (in a leadership position) at that point in the organization’s life cycle and aligned with the organization’s strategic plan.
  • Create a culture that truly embraces strategic planning—by which I mean an organization that doesn’t just do strategic planning in order to be able to say “oh, yes, we have a plan,” but that gets that the plan must be used and guide all decision making by the board, from whether there is a good fit with the current executive director to how to raise money to what do we need on the board, etc.

But there is, as noted above, the chance that you did everything right, above, but that rogue snuck in.  What then?  Obviously, the first step is to talk to the board member, see if s/he understands what is doing, the impact of his/her behavior, the nonalignment between his/her goals and the needs of the nonprofit.

Sometimes, such a conversation can lead to behavioral correctly.  Sometimes not.  If the latter, do not make the mistake of dragging the process out, of trying again and again to right the ship.  Do not rationalize:  s/he means well; we need his/her skill; we don’t want to offend him/her.  Boards must never be hesitant or afraid to enforce the procedures outlined in the bylaws for removing a board member.  Being on a nonprofit board isn’t about being nice to fellow board members; it is about ensuring the fulfillment of the mission.  Doing that requires the right board members, working together, with each pulling her/his weight.

It is no easy task to manage a rogue board member or to be his/her peer on a board.  But more importantly, it distracts people from the reason they joined the board:  to steward and shepherd the organization’s mission.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.