At some point you may resign from a nonprofit board before your term is up. You might be angry, disappointed, or just too busy. Don’t botch your resignation: do it right.
Most often as board members we stick out our term limits and leave the board feeling good about what we”ve contributed. But there are also times when you resign before your term is up. Maybe you’ve missed a lot of meetings or maybe you’re moving to another city. Maybe you’re uneasy with the direction the organization is taking, or maybe you feel that as a board member you are treated like a “mushroom”: kept in the dark and fed manure (!).
Regardless of your reason, you can just walk away quietly, or make a weak excuse, or you can use the moment to give meaning to your resignation, both to you and to the board.
Following are some ways to make significance out of your resignation:
• If you have concerns about the organization or the executive director but haven’t voiced them, consider raising them to the board president before finalizing your decision to resign. I know one organization where seven former board members were interviewed—and every one of them had resigned because they weren’t happy with the executive director, yet they never told anyone. At minimum, raise your concern to the board chair or an officer you know: “The reason I’m really resigning is because I don’t feel confident that Jim is doing a good job as executive director. I can’t work constructively with him, but at the same time, I don’t want to prevent the rest of you from working with him. I want to be honest with you about why I’m resigning, and later on it may be important for you to know why.”
• If you’ve been AWOL due to other commitments, be honest about your situation. “I haven’t been the board member I wanted to be. And I realize it’s demoralizing to everyone when someone is as absent as I have been. I don’t think things will change for me, so I’ve decided to resign.” If this is your situation, commit to doing one more specific task after leaving, such as getting two items for the upcoming silent auction or attending the city council hearing on zoning the following month.
• If you are resigning because you strongly disagree with a major organizational decision, consider serving as the “loyal opposition.” You should be aware that leaving may look like “sour grapes,” but if you’re out-of-step with everyone else, and you aren’t comfortable staying, leave gracefully but with principle. Consider writing a letter to the board explaining your position and read it aloud at your last board meeting. Ask to have it entered into the minutes. The board members who were absent from the meeting will hear your comments, and years later the record of the debate may help the board of the future.
• If you simply feel ineffective or useless as a board member, think about why that’s so. Is it because the board has an executive committee that decides everything of importance, leaving little for the whole board to do? Is it because neither the executive director nor the board chair really knows what to do with the board and with board members? Is it because the executive acts on his or her own and the board is an afterthought? Can these questions be raised with the board’s leaders who can address them with you?
The Golden Rule of Board Resignations: when you resign, do it the way you would like others to resign. It’s unsettling to have fellow board members resign without knowing the reason, or suspecting that their stated reason is just an excuse.
Whatever your reason, resign right. Tell the board chair first, then the executive director, then the whole board. If you will be attending one more meeting, bring cookies or another gesture of goodwill. They will be listening carefully to your “last words,” so make the most of the moment to contribute to the organization and its cause–just as you did when you first joined the board.
See also in past issues of Blue Avocado:
This article is adapted from one in the Best of the Board Cafe, Second Edition, by Jan Masaoka.