Board Cafe: What To Do With Board Members Who Don't Do Anything

Board Cafe

What To Do With Board Members Who Don't Do Anything

By Jan Masaoka

Have you ever been on a board that has recruited someone who seemed great, but who turned out to be a power-hungry tornado wreaking havoc on the board and the organization? Your by-laws should have a way to evict such members from the board, but a preventive measure is to do a reference check or two on candidates for the board. Ask the candidate for the names of the executive director and the board chair from a previous board, and call those individuals. "In what ways was Marguerite a positive contributor on the board? What are some things we should ask her to do?" or "If we were to ask Jason onto our board, what advice would you give us?"

What to Do With Board Members Who Don't Do Anything

"He never comes to meetings or does anything. Why does he even stay on the board?"
"She always says she'll take care of it and then she doesn't follow through. Aaagh!"

Whose responsibility is it to "do something" about a board member who is AWOL, deadwood, undependable, a procrastinator, or worse? Answer: Yours. Every board member shares in the responsibility to involve each board member in contributing to the well-being of the board and the organization. If you're the board president or an officer, your responsibilities include monitoring non-participation and intervening with board members when necessary. In some cases you may need to talk with the executive director about improving the way he or she works with board members. If you're the executive director, you may need to discuss the situation with board leadership.

There are two things you must do in the case of a board member who is not participating. First, you must do something. The problem is likely only to get worse, and non-participating board members have a demoralizing impact on even the best of boards. Second, be confident and hopeful. Many board members just need a little reminder to be more conscientious, and others will be grateful that you've given them a graceful way to relinquish tasks or even leave the board. Things will work out.

Short term strategies

  • Check to be sure that expectations were made clear to the board member before he or she joined the board. "I know you joined the board recently and I'm not sure that you realize that we ask all board members to attend the annual dinner and, hopefully, to help sell tickets. Let me explain to you what most board members do, so you can see whether you'll be able to work on this with us."
  • Hold a board discussion at which expectations are reconsidered and re-affirmed. Agree on a list of expectations for every board member.
  • Be sensitive to possible health issues or personal reasons why a good board member isn't participating as much as he or she has in the past.
  • Transfer responsibilities to someone else. "I'm concerned about finishing the revision of the personnel policies. Since you're so busy, maybe it would work out for the best if John took your notes on the policies and developed a first draft."
  • Together with the board member, explore whether he or she really has the time right now to be able to be an active board member. "I'm calling to check in with you since you haven't been able to make a meeting in the last several months. Are you just temporarily a lot busier than usual? We really want to have your participation, but if it isn't realistic, perhaps we should see if there's a less time-consuming way than board membership for you to be involved."

Longer term strategies

  • Make it possible for individuals to take a "leave of absence" from the board if they have health, work, or other reasons why they cannot participate fully for awhile. An individual can, for example, take a "6 month maternity leave" or a "disability leave."
  • Have a board discussion or a written board survey on what makes it difficult for people to participate fully. "Are there things we can change about the frequency, day, time, or length of board meetings that would make it easier for you to attend?" "Are there things about the way that board meetings are conducted that would make it easier for you to attend or that would give you more reason to want to attend?"
  • Consider whether board participation is meaningful to board members. Have lunch with some of the semi-active members and/or the executive director: "I'm sensing that board participation just isn't as substantive or significant as some board members want it to be. What do you think are the reasons, and what do you think we can do to make board membership more meaningful?"
  • Revise what is expected of board members. Perhaps responsibilities have been given to a board member that are unrealistic for any but the super-board-member. Reduce the number of committees and utilize short-term task forces instead. Re-design jobs and responsibilities to fit the ability of a busy achiever to accomplish them.

Original publication date: 09/14/2004

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