The dynamics of managing nonprofit board members
I am a senior level manager with six direct reports at a financial institution. My question, however, has to do with a director who serves on a nonprofit board with me. I was elected president of the board six months ago and I’ve been receiving an increased number of complaints about a particular member. She has been a member for 10+ years and has overseen a number of projects (we are considered a working board). We have worked together on the board for a number of years and get along well.
It has become obvious that she has too much on her plate with our nonprofit, her job, and other organizations she is helping. I am receiving complaints of her micromanaging projects, disorganization, inappropriate discussion with committees about staff members, etc. Do I handle her as if she were an employee? Do I have a straight heart-to-heart talk with her? It’s very possible our conversation could cause her to quit or to take it out on staff and volunteers. I’m not sure why I find this harder than managing my own employees, but the dynamic seems different. Maybe it really isn’t. I need to do something or she is going to run our volunteers off.
Managing volunteers is like herding fish. The dynamics are different—because volunteers can do what they please and can’t really be “fired.” In my own experience on nonprofit boards, I’ve been frustrated because volunteers don’t show up, or in the other extreme, they get into the weeds of the operation. What was often needed was a strong hand at the helm—and that’s where you come in.
As the President, it is your responsibility to deal with her troublesome behavior. For starters, ask the past president or executive director if he or she has had any prior conversations with her. You may find out that she has been spoken to in the past and you will want that information before speaking with her now.
Before you approach her, think through the ramifications. What’s the worst that can happen? If she quits what kind of negative fallout could occur? Will there be community reaction if she is vocal about it? Will it impact fundraising? Will it leave projects stranded? If she takes it out on staff or other volunteers are you prepared to ask her to resign?
One alternative is to have a heart-to-heart with her immediately, but you may salvage the relationship and cause less fall out with a phased in approach. Perhaps you can use your new role as a framework for your discussion. For example, during a board meeting you might say that as the new president you feel it would be a good idea to discuss your vision and expectations and responsibilities of the board members. Personally, I would have welcomed this step from presidents of some boards I’ve been on, since those things went unsaid and I never really did know exactly what my role was supposed to be.
Here are some questions to get some robust discussion about the role, responsibilities and authority of the board members. For example, since they are a “working board” what does that really mean? What is the appropriate level of involvement and decision making? What information is to be shared and what is confidential? I would meet with the Executive Director in advance to make sure he or she is agreement with your views on these topics. This is likely to be an interesting conversation and it will establish a standard you can use not only with the problem board member, but with any other situation that comes up.
Then, you could tell the Board that you plan on touching base with each member to discuss their interests, get their input and further define their opportunity for a meaningful contribution to the organization. For some it might be a quick check in but for others, you may discover valuable information. When you get to the problem board member you will have the right foundation for your conversation.
When you meet with her ask her how she feels about the expectations the group came up with. Ask her if she agrees with them. Be sure to tell her how much her contribution has meant to the organization. Explain the level of involvement you would like her to have and why you feel the operations staff need to take more of the responsibility. If you sense she has a blind spot or is giving it lip service, be straightforward with your feedback. This should also help fix her disorganization issue, since she won’t be as involved in the day-to-day. Be specific with your suggestions.
Going forward, if you get any more complaints, I would go to her and have a heart-to-heart. As you know from your experience as a leader, it’s better to have first-hand information but if you must use second-hand, be careful to give her room to tell her side and give her plenty of opportunity to save face. In cases like this, it’s useful to talk in terms of her intentions and their perceptions and how she can close the gap between the two by changing her behavior. Chances are, even if she does quit, the organization will manage without her. In fact, some may be relieved to see her go.
Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist.
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