Board Horror Stories: How to Reduce Board Resignations

When nonprofit board members feel dissatisfied, they often resign. Good communication about common objectives can prevent that.

Board Horror Stories: How to Reduce Board Resignations
13 mins read

Is your nonprofit doing enough to create a healthy board experience?

I’ll admit it: What follows isn’t really a horror story (per se). That is, they aren’t the corporate-level intrigue (and possible fraud) of some other articles. In fact, we might call them incredibly ordinary. But I’d argue what makes them the most upsetting is just how relatable these two tales are. In fact, if you’ve ever thought about resigning from a nonprofit board, you probably have a similar story.

The first anecdote involves my time as board chair of the local affiliate of a national organization. When I joined, the local chapter was focused on improving my community — something I could definitely get behind. But then the national organization restructured and decided that the smaller chapters would support the national brand — without local input.

Admittedly, the organization still wanted to do great work, but it didn’t have the community focus I signed up for. After several contentious conversations with headquarters staff, I chose to resign.

At a different nonprofit, I was recruited for a board position with the understanding that I would contribute professional (legal) expertise. At my first board meeting, the board was begged to volunteer to spend a Saturday picking up trash at the organization’s camp.

From talking with more senior board members, it became clear that this form of routine volunteering (and fundraising) were the primary modes of service expected of the board — use of professional expertise would be infrequent and ancillary, if even that. I resigned shortly after that meeting.

After these incidents, I began to consider the importance of curating board experience. After all, a dissatisfied board member holding a board seat can be worse than a vacant board seat: They take up space and can be disruptive to healthy board activity.

But board member dissatisfaction can have many causes, from the shift in organizational objectives of the first story to the unclear performance expectations of the second anecdote. Both of these represent a kind of bait-and-switch that leaves both board members and nonprofit employees frustrated. Which leads us to the question: How can nonprofits curate a healthy board experience?

Curating Board Experience

There are basically two requirements for nurturing a healthy board experience: The recruitment process and the work itself. That is, recruiting good board members is as integral to curating board experience as the experience itself. I have identified some principles to take into account for these two categories. Hopefully, this will begin to address some of the problems I described in my own horror stories.

The Recruitment Process

All board recruitment is a sale.

To make the sale, it is critically important that the executive director or chair provide the nominating committee with an “elevator speech” describing in concrete language what the organization does, why it is important, and why the committee is recruiting the candidate.

Here is a pitch I found particularly convincing:

Our organization was founded 50 years ago to protest against armed conflicts throughout the world. While we continue to believe that it is important to be an advocate for peace, we would like you to join our board to help us to develop strategies to also argue for peace in our local communities suffering from violence. We also hope that you will be our Treasurer.

In three sentences, this organization addresses what it does (raises its voice against violence), why its mission is important (advocate for peace), and why the candidate was chosen (to develop strategies and act as Treasurer). The message (including goals) is clear, as is the role the candidate will play in working towards this mission.

No one likes a sales pitch that never ends, so focus on being straightforward and concise. If the candidate is interested, they will probably ask follow-up questions, but don’t try to sell them something they do not want. As evidenced in my above experiences, it will not make for a satisfied board member and might even lead to resignation.

Show what you do in quantifiable numbers — with a narrative.

An important caveat to the previous principle: Facts are never enough to make a sale. Sales are made with emotion.

For example, your $2 million operating budget does not tell a story. That is, it is not persuasive for a nominating committee member to explain to a board candidate that they should sign up with their organization because it finds affordable housing for low-income families with a specific operating budget.

However, it is a compelling narrative to explain that your organization built 50 quality apartments last year, which now house 150 people who moved from unsafe, expensive, crowded housing and now pay a sustainable rent (allowing their families to prosper without the economic stress that debilitates low-income tenants). And your plan is to keep building apartments in your city to fill an unmet need, as demonstrated by the 500 applications your organization received for the 50 apartments last year.

Essentially, you want to provide narrative context for your nonprofit within the community. What role does your nonprofit play in addressing unmet community needs?

Get specific about the board’s role in recruitment.

It is a simple fact that the nominating committee needs recruiting help from the board. However, if the committee asks their fellow board members to give them the names of some people to recruit, they will (likely) get no response — this request is too general, and it can be hard to think of who would actually be a great fit when you don’t know the qualifications the nominating committee is looking for.

In order to engage the board in recruiting efforts, the executive director and/or board chair instead need to lead the discussion with specific skills (or networks) they are looking for. Examples of these might include:

  • We need someone with social network experience on our board to broaden our outreach.
  • We need someone from the community we serve to join the board to better represent client interests.
  • We need someone from a local financial institution to help us understand our market, donate to us, and link us to other financial institutions.

This type of specific appeal will persuade board members to reflect on their networks with an eye toward meeting a specific need. Instead of who do I know, the question becomes who do I know with social media experience? Chances are the specificity will help spark connection in your board members’ minds or, at the very least, give them a skill set to look out for, planting the seed so they can revisit it in other contexts.

Be quick about it.

Once a candidate has agreed to join the board, they must immediately be connected to the organization’s work. The new board member should meet with the executive director to provide the background behind the recruiting elevator speech, and perhaps even be introduced to key program or executive staff.

Arranging a tour of a location that exemplifies the organization’s work is extremely useful in helping maintain (and grow) that initial connection so the new board member feels excited about the role they will play in future decisions.

The chair should also meet with the new member to explain the board’s business operations, committee structures, and any specific expectations they have about member participation in the organization’s work.

Again, these discussions need to be clear, not just so the new board member understands their role, but also so they can speak about the organization confidently in fundraising (and possibly even recruiting new board members).

The Experience Itself

Build relationships.

It is important to create opportunities for board members to get to know each other. One of the huge benefits of board membership should be to allow all members to expand their networks to include each other. Board members already believe that the mission of the organization is important since they are willing to spend their time to support it. This common belief can be a strong starting point for establishing relationships.

Of course, social events are terrific forums for conversation. Committee assignments can foster engagement by creating small meetings where people can get to know each other better. And there is nothing like a work project to create friendships. Filling food boxes for children at summer camp on an assembly line for a few hours can create serious bonding time, leaving board members invigorated by the connections they are building with one another.

Guide the experience.

After a board member has been exposed to the organization’s work through a few board meetings, they might need to be specifically asked how they would like to contribute to a committee, assuming they have not yet come forward with their own ideas.

Here, it is important to keep note of board members’ expertise or interests: If a role opens that aligns with these, they should be asked to jump in to fill that need. Aligning board members’ expertise with their organizational service can make them feel like they are more than just a wallet to the organization, which helps strengthen their connectedness to your nonprofit.

Understand board service is a reciprocal relationship.

Similar to the previous principle, no one wants to feel like they are giving and not receiving anything in return. After all, a (well-utilized and guided) board member contributes their time, treasure, and talent. In return, the organization’s partnership with the board member allows them to experience the satisfaction associated with the organization’s mission.

However, this reciprocity might require constant reinforcement. Much in the same way that the sale of board recruitment should use more than numbers and a narrative, the board members also need to be reminded of what they are helping to accomplish. For example, the executive director and board chair might say: “Last quarter, we served 1000 nutritious meals to 250 children who otherwise would not have eaten properly. We were able to do this because the board raised the money to buy those meals.”

The ED and chair must explicitly and routinely call out this connection between the organization’s service and board membership. Do not assume that the connection will be made as a result of reading a quarterly report of activities or finances.

As another example, blood donation services have recently begun sending messages to donors explaining how their recent donation was used. Receiving an email telling you that an hour of your time and a pint of your blood contributed to 5 successful surgeries in your community is incredibly effective and motivates continued donations.

Whenever a board’s efforts can be directly tied to an organization’s work, make that connection. Make it explicitly, and make it repeatedly.

Horror Stories are Horrible

So, what is the point of all this? Well, from my decades of experiences on nonprofit boards, I know that my less-than-ideal board experiences could have been avoided with proper communication.

But outside of myself, I know that the real people who lost out were the organizations — not because I resigned, but because they wasted valuable time and resources recruiting someone who ultimately was not a good fit for their expectations. And I’m sure any temporary disappointment I felt in these situations was unhealthy for the organizations involved.

Nonprofit leadership must recognize that board members will work harder to achieve a goal if they feel like they are an integral part of the team working towards common objectives. After all, the board is more than a legal requirement; it can be a source of great organizational strength. To achieve this strength in unity, the ED and board chair must be purposeful in curating the board members’ service experience.

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Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

3 thoughts on “Board Horror Stories: How to Reduce Board Resignations

  1. Board behavior is also important. Input from new board members must be respected. Discussions should be collegial. Members should strive to seek input from every board member, and should refrain from dominating discussions to the detriment of other’s input. Meetings should be conducted in a business-like matter, respecting member’s time.

  2. Excellent insights. I am founder of new non-profit. I will not miss one of your newsletters with these pearls of wisdom. I need them badly. Many thanks.

  3. If you are asking for somebody with a particular skill, be clear if you want their input into discussions or if you want them to actually perform a task. Is an lawyer providing a legal perspective in discussions or acting as the group’s attorney? Is a social media expert providing topical input into discussions or managing your social media operations? If you want a Board member to wear a second hat as unpaid staff, say so. (BTW, it’s a very bad idea for a Board member to be the organization’s attorney. The attorney should be a detached person who will not be a party to a case).

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