Top 10 Nonprofit Board “Worst” Practices

Pitfalls to avoid and real screw-ups that can undermine the impact and disrupt the natural flow of nonprofit boards.

Top 10 Nonprofit Board “Worst” Practices
10 mins read

Board members serve the mission and the organization, not the other way around.

Hey board members, let’s face it, navigating your position can be tricky. On top of your day job, you’ve agreed to contribute your best thinking to a nonprofit. If you don’t have much experience in the nonprofit world, it has its own set of rules, and playing by them benefits not only you but also your organization.

One of the most significant differences is you’re typically not paid to be on a nonprofit board, and your role is often unclear. Take time to learn about the nonprofit’s culture and determine how best to engage. After all, the nonprofit may not be looking to you to take control or insert yourself in every discussion. Be respectful and remember that you are in service to the mission and the organization, not the other way around.

After 20 years of service in the nonprofit sector as staff, ED, board chair, and funder, I’ve met a lot of boards, including some real doozies that would make your head spin. And while there are plenty of articles out there on so-called “best practices,” what about the pitfalls to avoid and real screw-ups that can undermine the impact and disrupt the natural flow of an organization? Well, here goes:

  1. Not knowing what the organization does: Believe it or not, I’ve worked with some boards that didn’t quite understand the nonprofit’s core mission, and some in which board members focused on a favorite program instead of the entire picture of the organization. Neither serve the organization well. Encourage new board members to learn the organization’s elevator pitch so they understand how best to describe what its focus is and how all the pieces fit together.
  2. Having a Big Ego: A board member may be a master of the universe in their day job, but as a board member they may not know the full extent and complexities of the cause. So, keep in mind you may not be the smartest person in the room. Listen and ask questions versus telling everyone what to do. You’re a board member, so guide the organization, do not make commands or edicts. And remember: the organization is not your company or anyone else’s. You do not own the organization, you serve it.
  1. Diving into operations and getting too into the weeds: This one is for all of my eager beaver board members. Thank you for learning about the organization, truly. But it likely does not help your nonprofit for you to know every single iota of detail regarding its operations unless you’re looking for a job. Remember, particularly if you’re a board member of a nonprofit with paid staff, stay at the strategic level. You’ve hired an ED who has hired staff to help implement the vision and mission you’ve helped to craft. Trust they’re going to excel at their jobs.
  1. Arriving late to the party: We’ve all been on committees that require months and months of discussion. These processes, while sometimes painful, typically yield strong buy-in at the board level, and more importantly, provide thoughtful direction to the organization. That said, I’ve also seen situations where board members who have not participated in the discussions insert themselves at the last minute, believing that they have an original idea the committee actually discussed months ago. It’s great to ask questions, but please be inquisitive versus assuming your peers have not already had multiple discussions about your big, new idea.
  1. Not asking questions: We’re all different; some people are introverted, some blurt out thoughts and questions, and some send thoughtful emails pre/post meetings. In any event, you should never feel scared to ask a question. Likely if something is unclear, others may not understand it as well. Asking for clarity is well worth the five-minute pause it takes to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  1. Not understanding the financial model: While financial analysis may not be part of your day job, please, please, please, make sure you understand the nonprofit’s financials and business model. Do not leave this work to the finance committee. Ask questions and make sure you understand the financial health of the organization; in fact, this is part of the fiscal responsibility legally assumed by all board members. I work with several organizations helping to create financial dashboards that provide quick, visual snapshots of financial health. These can be effective tools to help board members understand the financial realities of the organization in a visual way as opposed to staring at confusing financial statements. I always suggest that every board can benefit from a financial dashboard that includes liquidity, leverage, and budget to actual performance indicators.
  2. Pushing pet projects: Some board members fall in love with a project or program after a site visit or presentation and try to put it ahead of overall organizational goals. I’ve also seen board members try to hijack a strategic planning process by inserting their “brilliant idea.” Be careful not to push your own idea without reconciling it with the overall mission of the organization.
  3. Not evaluating the ED’s performance: One of the most basic functions of a board is to evaluate the executive director’s performance annually. Be open and honest with your board members and recognize that an ED with strong support, guidance, and direction from the board will likely perform better. And while it’s great to give support, make sure you share areas where the board sees opportunities for improvement. Have a healthy dialogue around what can be done better, and how the board can support this. While you’re at it, you should also definitely consider evaluating the board’s performance too.
  4. Not promoting your nonprofit to funders and others: You were likely invited to join the board due to your leadership in a similar industry, specific sector knowledge, and/or connections to donors and funders. Again, ask the marketing team or ED for the elevator pitch or guidance on how to make a specific ask, or make it clear if you’re not comfortable asking and offer to open doors, thank existing supporters, and embrace other methods of advancing fundraising efforts. Either way, fundraising for your nonprofit is one of the core responsibilities of every board member.
  5. Assuming you know the lives of your members and beneficiaries: This may be the biggest no-no of all. I’ve worked with several boards for nonprofits that support low-income families. During one meeting, a board member was describing to me “how a poor person should spend their money.” This person went on to tell me their values and how wealthy they are, and that if people would just work hard and spend money wisely, then they wouldn’t be poor. After I counted to ten and breathed calmly, I engaged with this person a bit about how someone with wealth may not know the true challenges a lower-income family may face. The point here is, be respectful and learn about your constituency and what the beneficiary’s lives are like, and never assume you know what they need. You may want to consider creating a board seat for a community member to ensure the nonprofit’s strategies are grounded in reality and that you can benefit from this critical firsthand perspective. Of course, one person cannot represent an entire community, but hey, it’s a start.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive; rather it’s designed to help new and existing board members become more engaged and better stewards of nonprofits. Learning how to bring your best to the boardroom is an ongoing opportunity. By becoming aware of unspoken biases and potentially distracting personalities, we can all improve our effectiveness in serving the missions of our nonprofits.

Do you agree with this list? Have you witnessed (or even committed—hey, we all have a learning curve!) other board member no-no’s? Share them in the comments below!

About the Author

Marc Rand

Marc Rand has focused the last twenty years on supporting the nonprofit sector through capacity building and finance. He spends his time creating new and innovative ways of supporting organizations through finance as the Executive Director of American Nonprofits, which includes operating the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance of California and Bridge to Bridge Loan Funds. He is the former Program Director for Loans and Affordable Housing at Marin Community Foundation, one of the country’s largest community foundations. Prior to being a funder, Marc served with the Peace Corps in Romania where he led a team that developed five credit unions focused on underserved population. Before his service with the Peace Corps, Marc served as a Capital Markets Analyst with First Union National Bank.

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.

15 thoughts on “Top 10 Nonprofit Board “Worst” Practices

  1. Thanks for this post. Choosing the right board is so important, and this can serve as a great framework for questions to ask when talking with potential candidates.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jason! That’s a great idea, these points could be used to vet candidates, and also to provide a framework for additional training should board members require it to be effective in their roles.

  2. The list provides a series of good talking points to refocus an existing board. I think many nonprofits have suffered from board members who were uncomfortable with the task of raising money and instead became completely focused on operations, pet projects, and ways the organization could extend itself to serve the board member’s area of interest. This list provides an opportunity to discuss these board pitfalls without pointing fingers. Thanks!

  3. Good article on how to support an already high-functioning NFP. The items about not pushing in too deep, too quick or too forcefully are important assuming the NFP isn’t heading for trouble. The flip side of that coin is to not be afraid to dive deep and push hard if you suspect your ED is damaging the organization or hiding poor performance. I’ve been associated with 1 NFP and my friend has been with another where the Board turned a blind eye to behavior detrimental because they wanted to be humble and supportive and not interfere with the ED, who was harming the organization right under their noses. Enron’s and Theranos’ boards were negligent and billions of shareholder dollars were lost because they exercise adequate oversight. The Humane Society, Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity saw donations shrink after the Boards allowed improper ED behavior. Action should be appropriate to the situation.

    1. The board should always understand what is going on at the organization, period. There’s no excuse for poor management and/or turning a blind eye. Also important to note that boards can be dysfunctional at nonprofits and for profits…..shareholders, take note!

    2. As a member of a small NFP board in my county – I am particularly interested in #3 Diving into operations and getting too into the weeds and how that balances out with #8 where you indicate its the board’s responsibility to evaluate the ED.

      How would you ever be able to evaluate the ED if you don’t know the operations in order to have a sense of what to you are basing your evaluation on .. . and additionally – how do you evaluate an ED when you are not around for the day to day operations and are dependent on the ED’s report to the board on how things are going.

      Are there acceptable ways for a board to get input from employees on their experience of working there and how do you go beyond the numbers which can hide alot of ugly skeletons – do you have an article on how a board can do a thorough evaluation of an ED?


      1. Hi Nancy, the author of the article responded to your query with these points:
        “I would suggest the board does not need to be in the weeds to evaluate the ED. The board will typically set up goals for the ED and organization – Programmatic, Financial, Impact, # of donors etc. The board (in my humble opinion) should evaluate the ED on those goals. You can also set up a 360 anonymous survey that seeks staff input on the ED’s performance.”
        We also have an article on Executive Director evaluations with a pretty comprehensive downloadable resource – just search on executive director evaluation and you will find it!

  4. Thank you, Marc, for this article. For the last 3 years I have been attempting to read all I can about non-profit boards and how other articles apply to our situation. After 15 years of pouring our hearts into 60 hour work weeks, our professional theater company was closed down by a board treasurer who lied to the board about our financial situation, and a lazy board. Ours was a board who refused to help with fundraising, even after years of begging by those of us who were co-founders. Instead, they borrowed us into closure. They were more interested in micromanaging us, including selecting the shows they thought we should do. They should have been overseeing the treasurer who closed the building but didn’t forgot to close the company. We have now taken it back and are re-building our company.

    1. Hello Marinell – I’m so sorry to hear about the theatre company. There’s no excuse for the behaviour you described by your board treasurer. Furthermore, a lazy board many times results in disaster, as you can relate to first hand. That said, it sounds like you have turned the corner and as they say, “the show must go on.”

      Good luck. I hope a new board can provide oversight/direction in a more productive way.


  5. Great post, Marc! As a vendor to nonprofits, I’d appreciate the chance to add to point 4 – late to the party. When one of your project teams makes a selection for a major new product (we sell accounting software), please don’t come in with “I can get you a better deal on . . .” Your vendors work as hard at DISqualifying you as a prospect as they do on selling to you when you become an opportunity. Then, when you become that opportunity we try to give you the best product and services that will work for your organization at a fair price . Friends of friends may not have the time, focus, or understanding of your needs that you get with someone who has been dedicating effort specifically to come up with a solution that works best for you.

  6. Good, helpful thoughts, Marc! The best boards check their egos and personal interests at the door, before the board meeting begins. And when naive or ego-driven director wanders into the lanes of the executive director or staff, it is critical for the board Chair to intervene immediately and help the director stay in their own lane. If that doesn’t happen quickly, the potential for an unnecessary crisis increases. In turn, an unnecessary crisis will misuse the precious resources of the nonprofit, which are supposed to be used to serve the community. Ultimately, we must all ask ourselves, “How many donors prefer to have their donated dollars be used to address an unnecessary crisis or senior staff turnover, instead of for community programs?”

  7. It’s good to know what we should expect if we want to be board members. Recently, my wife and I decided we want to be a part of our community and help in any way we can, so we’ll keep an eye open for board member openings. Thanks for the information on leaving our worry behind and asking questions to board members.

  8. It’s good to know what we should expect if we want to be board members. Recently, my wife and I decided we want to be a part of our community and help in any way we can, so we’ll keep an eye open for board member openings. Thanks for the information on leaving our worry behind and asking questions to board members.

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