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Good ideas for bad boards

publication date: Jul 19, 2018
author/source: Ann Rosenfield, MBA, CFRE

A friend of mine once said that the problem with many charity boards is that people are so keen to do a good job, they leave their common sense at the door when they walk into the room for a Board meeting.

Board volunteers give so much time and love to organizations, it can be hard to tell them when they are not performing. Here are some ways to think about the organization first.

Time to review Board succession

I once worked for a charity where all the Board had served for 30 years or more. This was not a specialty topic, this was not for a small community, this was a major social service charity in a major city.

The Board member your charity recruited 5, 15, 30 years ago may not have the same skills your charity needs today. After all, that Board member who started in 1989, came on when Driving Miss Daisy won the Academy Award for best film. That person may not have the skills to help your charity grow in diversity and inclusion.

As part of your strategic plan, take a good hard look at where your charity is heading. Develop an inventory of skills  you need in the next 3-5 years. As part of that process, take a long, hard look at who you serve. Does your Board reflect the people you serve? Do you have equal representation of men and women?

After you have done that review, you have a roadmap for who you need to find. Just because someone was a great Board member for 30 years, doesn't mean they need to fill that role forever.  And most of us have roles other than Board. Maybe that long-serving Board member would be a great mentor or hands on volunteer for your charity.

Time to sit down with low performing Board members

Honestly, most people come onto a Board with good intentions and a desire to make a difference. But sometimes life gets in the way. New job, family illness, changes, even the best Board member may not be able to sustain the commitment needed.

Personally, I would rather have a Board of five who all work hard than a Board of 25 with 5 who work hard and 20 who don't. When you have Board members who don't contribute, you demoralize those who do work hard.

And here is the surprising part. I have had Board members thank me for sitting down with them over coffee to discuss their performance. Often, they feel guilty and are worried about leaving the organization in the lurch. When I thank them and assure them we will be ok, they are grateful. 

Time to review Board/staff relations

Some Boards get into trouble understanding their role. While it is true that many smaller organizations, particularly those without staff, have working Boards, once that first staff person is hired, it is time to start to ensure that roles  are clear for all parties. In my conversation as a volunteer, I will often start a sentence making it clear which role I am inhabiting in the conversation. I may say "As a Board member, I have decided..." or "As your colleague, this is what I suggest..."

It is a small, but important difference. Board members have a lot of decision-making authority and it is important to be sure that Board members know their limits.

Being a board member or staff person is very rewarding. It is important to bear in mind that, no matter how much someone may enjoy a role, the needs of the charity have to come first.


Ann Rosenfield, MBA, CFRE is the Editor of Hilborn Charity eNews.She is also the Chair of AFP Congress 2018 with the theme Disrupt Philanthropy.

Early Bird Registration for AFP Congress is open.



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