What to Do with Board Members Who Don’t Do Anything

In this Board Cafe column, look at short-term and long-term strategies for the board members known as deadwood or worse.

What to Do with Board Members Who Don’t Do Anything
6 mins read

Your nonprofit’s success depends on all your board members being engaged.

“He never comes to meetings or does anything. Why does he even stay on the board?” “She always says she’ll take care of it and then she doesn’t follow through. Aaagh!”

Whose responsibility is it to “do something” about a board member who is AWOL, deadwood, undependable, a procrastinator, or worse? Regretfully the answer is: Yours.

If you’re the board president or an officer, you have a special role, but every board member has a stake — and therefore a responsibility — in all members being active. In some cases, you may need to talk with the executive director about improving the way he or she works with board members. If you’re the executive director, you may need to discuss the situation with board leadership.

You must do two things in the case of a board member who is not participating:

First, you must do something. The problem is likely only to get worse, and nonparticipating board members have a demoralizing impact on even the best of boards.

Second, be confident and hopeful. Many board members just need a little reminder to be more conscientious, and others will be grateful that you’ve given them a graceful way to relinquish tasks or even leave the board. Things will work out.

Short-term strategies.

  • Check to be sure that expectations were made clear to the board member before he or she joined the board. “I know you joined the board recently and I’m not sure that you realize that we ask all board members to attend the annual dinner and, hopefully, to help sell tickets. Let me explain to you what most board members do, so you can see whether you’ll be able to work on this with us.”
  • Hold a board discussion at which expectations are reconsidered and reaffirmed. Agree on a list of minimal expectations for every board member, and ask people to suggest how they might individually help as well.
  • Be sensitive to possible health issues or personal reasons why a good board member isn’t participating as much as he or she has in the past.
  • Transfer responsibilities to someone else. “I’m concerned about finishing the revision of the personnel policies. Since you’re so busy, maybe it would work out for the best if John took your notes on the policies and developed a first draft.”
  • Together with the board member, explore whether he or she really has the time right now to be an active board member. “I’m calling to check in with you since you haven’t been able to make a meeting in the last several months. Are you temporarily a lot busier than usual? We really want to have your participation, but if it isn’t realistic, perhaps we should see if there’s a less time-consuming way than board membership for you to be involved.”

Longer-term strategies.

  • Make it possible for individuals to take a leave of absence from the board if they have health, work, or other reasons why they cannot participate fully for a while. An individual can, for example, take a six-month maternity leave or a disability leave.
  • Have a board discussion or conduct a written board survey on what makes it difficult for people to participate fully.
    • “Are there things we can change about the frequency, day, time, or length of board meetings that would make it easier for you to attend?”
    • “Are there things about the way that board meetings are conducted that would make it easier for you to attend or that would give you more reason to want to attend?”
  • Consider whether board participation is meaningful to board members. Have lunch with semi active members or the executive director: “I’m sensing that board participation just isn’t as substantive or significant as some board members want it to be. What do you think are the reasons, and what do you think we can do to make board membership more meaningful?”
  • Revise what is expected of board members. Perhaps responsibilities have been given to a board member that are unrealistic for any but the super board member. Reduce the number of committees and utilize short-term task forces instead. Redesign jobs and responsibilities to fit the ability of a busy achiever to accomplish them.

And what if you are the one who isn’t as active as you had expected to be? Fix the situation either by going to the next meeting and committing yourself to something big, or by calling the board chair and explaining that you’re just too busy to be a good board member, and you’d like to part ways on good terms.


See also:

This article is one of dozens included in The Best of the Board Cafe Second Edition.

About the Author

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Jan is a former editor of Blue Avocado, former executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, and has sat in on dozens of budget discussions as a board member of several nonprofits. With Jeanne Bell and Steve Zimmerman, she co-authored Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability, which looks at nonprofit business models.

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.

39 thoughts on “What to Do with Board Members Who Don’t Do Anything

  1. How do you handle a board member who will fight about any comment or suggestion that is made during a board meeting but is full of love and compliments any other time. I believe it is called " brown nosing".

  2. How can an ED either goose into action, or move out an inactive board chair ? I don’t think it is appropriate to go behind her back to other board members, but she rarely does what she says she’ll do…

    1. I am an ED who has dealt with this issue. I cannot say I have a "fully engaged" Board but I did have some success with having individual lunches with unproductive Board members to seek thier interests and expertise and also with having a Board retreat where they were asked to read a book like "Good to Great" or "Called to Serve". After this, I actually had a non-active member say "I don’t want to be a seat warmer".

    2. In some organizations, it is Board leadership’s responsibility to nurture and prompt its members, rather than the ED’s. An ED who feels that her work is being hampered by nonperformers at the board level may need speak to her board confidant. In that case, "going being the recalcitrant’s back" is appropriate.

    3. As a board chair, I would hope that the E.D. I work with would come to me with such an issue and discuss it honestly. Let her know this is happening, and that it has an impact on you and the organization, and what those impacts are. Then try to come up with a solution together. (Our board has very recently implemented an Action List that will be sent out after every meeting to all members, specifying the commitments they made at the meeting. Then members are asked to report on their progress on each item at the following meeting, putting accountability in place.) Of course, I don’t know your relationship with your board chair, but if it is even halfway decent I’d recommend this course of action first. Of course, if this does not work or your relationship with the chair is not good (another issue entirely), I agree with the poster who said you need to take this to another member with whom you do have a good relationship.

  3. Every board position should have a unique volunteer job descrption and every Board Member should have a required orientation. If you do those two things you will solve most of your deadwood problems before they ever begin. When offers to join our board are made; they are contingent on attending an orientation. Those who can’t attend are met with the comment – "Perhaps next year you will be available", and then we move on to someone else.
    Another advantage of having unique volunteer job descriptions is it forces you to recruit for specific talents and backgrounds and it keeps you from adding the friends of Board members. – just because they are available.

  4. An inactive board member is a board member who doesn’t waste my time. If we’re not making quorum for meetings they are a problem, otherwise I’m grateful.

  5. We are currently having this problem, and the demoralization issue is huge indeed. We are a hands-on, hard working board, and our specific issue is around members who do not want to fundraise, and who donate little to no money themselves. This is very frustrating to other board members who are trying their best to raise money and who do give. One solution we are trying is assigning these members with other, very specific projects and/or roles that are not fundraising-heavy, but contribute in a less direct way.
    Also, to Alexis Terry’s comment: We seem to have the opposite problem. We have tended to fall into the trap of recruiting people who do not have the time or money to be of real support, and then they eventually resign or are asked to step down. If we were to recruit someone with deep pockets who did nothing but donate money and get money, we would not be complaining, we would be rejoicing!

  6. We are currently having this problem, and the demoralization issue is huge indeed. We are a hands-on, hard working board, and our specific issue is around members who do not want to fundraise, and who donate little to no money themselves. This is very frustrating to other board members who are trying their best to raise money and who do give. One solution we are trying is assigning these members with other, very specific projects and/or roles that are not fundraising-heavy, but contribute in a less direct way.
    Also, to Alexis Terry’s comment: We seem to have the opposite problem. We have tended to fall into the trap of recruiting people who do not have the time or money to be of real support, and then they eventually resign or are asked to step down. If we were to recruit someone with deep pockets who did nothing but donate money and get money, we would not be complaining, we would be rejoicing!

  7. Time always shows which board members are truly connected to others. Sadly, you just don’t know when they join. The board mirrors the organization really. Most boards I’ve seen have only a handful of requirements, aside from attending meetings and serving on a committee matching their expertise, they are supposed to donate generously, participate in your organization (buy tickets, etc.) and bring other people to your events. Bottom line:Can’t do those things, then don’t waste the organizations efforts by accepting the nomination.

  8. Hi there. What do you do when your board president is one of the problems?? Out of 10 members, we have 3 who just don’t engage, and he’s one of them. He’s very casual and isn’t into protocol, yet they expect me as the new E.D. to take the organization to the next level. How can I tactfully tell the board to do their job and govern? They’ve really left me, the E.D., to steer the whole ship. It’s like the child telling the parent to be a parent.

  9. Hi there. What do you do when your board president is one of the problems?? Out of 10 members, we have 3 who just don’t engage, and he’s one of them. He’s very casual and isn’t into protocol, yet they expect me as the new E.D. to take the organization to the next level. How can I tactfully tell the board to do their job and govern? They’ve really left me, the E.D., to steer the whole ship. It’s like the child telling the parent to be a parent.

  10. I’d like some guidance on how to deal with what appears to be an entire board of directors who are finding out that a director of operations has been (allegedly) helping himself to not only significant amounts of cash but also inventory of controlled items which he purchased for the company using his own credit cards.

    Even though this board claims to be transparent, no one (besides them) ever seems to know when or where they meet in order to bring things to the table for discussion.

  11. I work for an all-volunteer organization. Our Board of three people is useless. We recently had a Board and Leadership Team phone call. They didn’t step up at all to help us with a big event and some actions that need to be taken for the event to succeed. I have read the by-laws but I do not see anywhere that it is possible for a vote to take place. We would like our Leadership Team to vote them all off the Board and recruit ACTIVE Board members. How can we do this if it isn’t in the by-laws?

    1. I have the same issue as CG. Would very much appreciate some advice. We do have 1 board member who is great and very committed, but the few others are useless.

  12. My small non-profit board, for the most part is wonderful but getting the new treasurer engaged has been a challenge. She is always out of town or doesn’t respond to critical requests. Her position is so very important. I have tried to engage her over time. She avoids meeting with me, sends emails that make no sense or sends incomplete information. I have ended up paying bills, issuing reimbursements and handling banking issues. I’m the President and I have a full plate as is. She resigned this morning after I was firm with her on several issues. I’m relieved but I also feel badly. What did I do wrong?

    1. There are always two sides to a story and you haven't given us a lot of detail here, but I sort of think you have the outcome that you wanted and probably needed.  It is unfortunate that it had to come to a resignation and it would have been great if the decision could have been more amicable, but ultimately, you probably need a Treasurer who has more time and can give this position the attention it deserves.  I think a lot of folks take on responsibilities like this because they have good intentions, but often don't understand what the commitment means.  I suggest you use this as a learning opportunity and make sure that you speak candidly with the new Treasurer about the time commitment and responsibilities. Rather than blame the former Treasurer, probably best to admit that the roles and responsibilities of the position did not fit in with that individual's schedule.

    2. My sense is you were probably too harsh in your approach.
      Hopefully, this was a learning experience for you and her as well.
      Did you ever get a better Treasurer?

  13. I am on the board of small town Community house , not for profit.
    The board consists of the Chair, Treasurer, Secretary and five board members. I have only been on the board since Nov last year. We meet monthly and deal with fundraising, etc..The usual stuff..
    The problem is that a lot of the members do not contribute to any discussion..and the Chair has to virtually drag responses from them.
    Very exasperating and disappointing…. what is the answer to getting these people to engage..their soul purpose seems to be the status of being a board member!

  14. I am on the board of small town Community house , not for profit.
    The board consists of the Chair, Treasurer, Secretary and five board members. I have only been on the board since Nov last year. We meet monthly and deal with fundraising, etc..The usual stuff..
    The problem is that a lot of the members do not contribute to any discussion..and the Chair has to virtually drag responses from them.
    Very exasperating and disappointing…. what is the answer to getting these people to engage..their soul purpose seems to be the status of being a board member!

  15. As a homeowner in a Condo Development, means that there is an Executive Board that works for the good of the community they live in. These Board Members are voted into their position by the homeowners. The Executive Board then hires a management company to aid them in the upkeep of their community. In this scenario, a lot of homeowners found that after a year or so, these nominees that became a board member, are NOT performing in the best interest of the community. The homeowners are NOT happy or content on the way ALL the Executive Board Members have been doing their respective job. On behalf of some of the homeowners, we would like to know how to REMOVE ALL the Executive Board Members from their position quickly. What & how do the homeowners need to do?

    1. I am a member of a Non Profit HOA we had an election recently, to elect a board. The by laws state you can not use lots that have a Leon on them, the old board used such lots to put themselves back into office.All present did not want the old board in, thus being said they declared themselves winners how do we get rid of this board??? They have done nothing since holding office and do not live on the premises. We need advice.

  16. I found it interesting when you talked about what you’d do in case a board member is not fulfilling their role. Recently, my wife started getting involved with our community’s board, but she’s worried about a member that doesn’t even attend their meetings, so I think she’d benefit from reading your article. Thanks for the insight on calling a board member meeting and creating a list of expectations for everyone. https://metrodistricteducation.com/faq/

  17. Board has added all family members only on Board of Directors and recorded it with the State of Michigan. How can we get board to do the right thing. President refuses to turn over control, provide minutes to meetings or allow use of the facility and the Asset continues to deteriorate. Not to mention he has stolen $15,000 dollars. Michigan State Police said not enough evidence to prove he stole it. Special needs children used the facility. A good Board could restore facility. How do you pursue this removal of the board. It is an old corporation that doesn’t address this specifically. I have been told i have no “standing” to bring forth a small claims court filing.

    1. Try reading up on state law. I believe in my state members of the non-profit can remove a board member. We also have rules for that on our by-laws. I’m not in Michigan, though, so your laws might be different.

  18. We have quarterly Board Meetings all of the board is my husband’s friends and they didn’t show up for the last meeting. He’s the board lead and President but has given me the task of calling everyone to see why there was a no-show. The article above will help me get the commitment or a way to explain the roles and responsibilities of the board. I will also let them know if they want to part ways on good terms because they really didn’t understand what they were signing up for if they want a way out. As the CEO/Founder, It’s my duty to find an active board that can support me in growing this nonprofit. I will ask them to stay on the board until all not related or friends of my husband and I are active members on the board. I will ask them to participate in actively seek new board members to replace them if they no longer want to participate. A Good Board of Directors is the Life Line to a Successful Nonprofit!

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