Nonprofits: How to Avoid Problem Board Members in the First Place

In a recent post, I advised nonprofit boards why and how to rid themselves of problem board members. Even better, there are ways to limit the likelihood of bringing problem board members on in the first place. You can also establish good board practices to cycle board members off at a dynamic pace; this mitigates the damage of problem board members, while also allowing you to keep the board fresh, diverse, and relevant.

Establish a rigorous board member recruitment and selection process.

  • Board composition: With leadership from the Board Governance Committee (formerly known as a Nominating Committee), determine the ideal size of your board, as well as the qualifications and qualities you are looking for in the mix of your board members. The size and composition should be based on the organization's mission, as well as the vision of what your nonprofit seeks to accomplish and the revenue model to achieve success. Consider the experience, expertise, backgrounds, perspectives, and networks that will help the board to get the organization from where it is to where it wants to be.
  • Considering candidates: Use all possible networks and relationships to identify potential board candidates. As you identify people, the CEO, board chair, board governance committee chair, and various board members should meet with and interview each candidate. Each meeting should be considered a two-way courtship, so that while you are assessing each candidate, you are also helping to sell the person on your organization. If you decide you want the candidate, you'll want them to be excited about your nonprofit as well. As part of the process, it's also important to take the candidate on site visits so that they can see the work. Show them your financials, and share both the challenges and opportunities facing the organization. Discuss with the candidate how you think the person might be useful, and how the candidate imagines that they can and want to help. You want the candidate to make an informed choice.
  • Electing candidates: Only elect candidates who are excited about the organization's mission, enthusiastic about providing the kind of support that you need from them, and who have good chemistry with the CEO and board members with whom they've met.

Establish board practices to ensure a dynamic pace of board member rotation.

  • Shorter board terms: Consider two-year terms. This way, every board member is evaluated based on performance and qualifications as a condition for being invited to continue; make sure there is no assumption that board members are renewed. (An outstanding global NGO that I am working with actually has one-year terms.)
  • Term limits: Having argued the pros and cons of term limits over the course of 18 years, I am now firmly on the side of term limits (maximum of six years). In my experience, it is the only way to ensure that there are vigorous efforts to engage new people who bring diverse experiences and perspectives. It's important to note here that as organizations and their boards evolve, grow, and change with the times, they need board members with different qualifications. Shorter terms and term limits allow boards to adjust board composition accordingly.

As to problem board members, term limits provide a natural point of departure when human nature makes it too difficult to "fire a volunteer" who is a friend and/or colleague.

Make expectations clear, and establish a system of accountability.

  • Statement of expectations: As a board, agree to expectations for attendance at meetings, participation on committees, and a range or standard of financial contributions or fundraising. (A range allows flexibility to accommodate board members who are recruited for their expertise in the industry and who might not have access to wealth.)
  • System of accountability: Expectations are meaningless without a system of accountability. This can be handled by the Board Governance Committee.

Board leadership is key to board effectiveness. Among other things, the board chair sets the tone for meeting discussions and the board culture; a civil setting can potentially discourage problem board members from disrupting the board.

Always remember the mission. It's the reason that we serve on nonprofit boards ... to advance a cause that we believe in. The mission should be invoked at the beginning of every board and committee meeting, and considered with every decision.

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