When to give a board member the boot

I once walked into an organization that hired us and found out that they had multiple board members who had been on the board for longer than some of my friends had been alive. A board being comprised of the same members for 40 some-odd years is a major red flag.  

What that says  is that the organization is stuck in the past.  Digging deeper into what was actually going on confirmed this was true.  But my question was why would a person, let alone multiple people, stay on a board for that long?

I used my best educated guessing (peppered with a significant amount of  experience working with boards):

  • It could be that no one ever asked them to do anything. It’s really easy to maintain a position when the position does not require any work or any time commitment.  
  • It could be that the board did not meet that frequently. What a lovely thing to tell friends and colleagues about your position on a board without ever having to attend a meeting.
  • It could be that the executive director was less than dynamic and really did not engage with the board. Having a board with no teeth as a formality, if you will.
  • Or it could most certainly be that the organization was content and did not want to move forward with new blood/ideas/initiatives/fundraising.

Whatever the reason, what anyone working in nonprofit or on a board needs to realize is that the single most important thing a board member can do is replace themselves with a better board when they leave.  

People are on boards for a variety of reasons including; being asked by a friend, being interested in the cause, wanting to boost their resume, joining because they think it won’t be a lot of work.

Whatever their reason for joining, the majority of people do not know what it takes to be an effective board member.  It is up to those working at the organization to train board leadership to ensure a board is productive rather than stagnant.

If you are trying to energize a board that historically does very little, providing clear expectations for members will go a long way to weed out board members who are/will not pull their weight.  When monetary and time commitments are clearly communicated, often those who are not productive will opt out of the group.

One aspect of professionalizing your board is to take board term limits seriously. Instituting these limits is a safeguard against counter-productive board members who may outstay their welcome. There are all kinds of ways you can set up term limits (check your bylaws first), but an easy method is having 1-2 year staggered limits on all board members to allow the organization to part with that member after a short time frame.

I know of organizations who  simply send a thank you letter after a board member’s term is finished if they do not want to renew them. Occasionally, you may need to have the hard conversation holding the member accountable and outlining why they are being asked to leave. You can also do regular board evaluations . There are many resources on the internet (including ours) to help with this.  

Defining a clear culture of productive board members will go a long way towards the success for your organization.

For more info or to set up a board orientation/training contact ted@dsaboston.com.

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