True Tales of Dysfunctional Boards

nonprofit board dysfunction

Is your nonprofit board a train wreck?

A while back I wrote about Post Traumatic Board Member Disorder, or PTBMD for short.

Since then, a number of people have shared with me their stories of “train wreck” nonprofit boards. Seems it’s epidemic!

But fixing dysfunctional boards is a big part of my mission. And the first step is to clearly identify the problem.

And so today I’m going to tell you the funniest (saddest?) train wreck board stories that have been shared with me. These all really happened, but I suspect they’re not unique. Let me know if any sound familiar.

FIRST, A FEW CAVEATS

Caveat #1: I’m not going to name any names. If you ask me, this isn’t about your board.

Caveat #2: I firmly believe that most people join boards because they sincerely want to do good and are willing to volunteer time to work with others to make the world a better place. What’s better than that?

Caveat #3: From my own experience as a board member, I know how frightfully easy it is for dysfunction to set in. There was that time, for example, when I voted in favor of a motion I didn’t actually agree with because I was distracted posting adorable photos of myself to Facebook. Or the time I attempted to illustrated how smart I was by asking a zinger question only to find out the question had already been answered hours ago. I’m as guilty as anybody.

THE THREE DEADLY SINS OF DYSFUNCTIONAL BOARDS

I’ve organized these stories into several general themes. Each represents a “sin” that boards sometimes make. These boards all need to repent!

Sin #1: Cheapness

  • We’re in serious financial trouble. At our last board meeting, the Executive Director informed the board we might not make payroll. One board member asked if at the next meeting we could do better than Subway for lunch.
  • During my salary negotiations (I’m the Executive Director) more than one board member told me that the gratification for all the good work should be compensation aplenty.
  • At least half our board asked us for comp tickets to our annual fundraising gala.

Sin #2: Cluelessness

  • During a board meeting, a board member actually said, out loud, “I’m afraid my mother will be mad at me if I ask her to make a donation.”
  • At our last meeting, a board member suggested the agenda be sent ahead of time. But it was. And she had even brought it with her.
  • Pretty much every single meeting there are board members who don’t show up but post about an event they went to at the same time on Facebook.
  • I’m the Director of Development. I present at every board meeting. At the last one, a long time board member called me the wrong name. Three times.
  • I constantly catch board members playing Candy Crush during meetings.
  • It’s amazing how often I have to remind a certain member of our board what committee she’s on.

Sin #3: Self-Importance 

  • Our board members refuse to come to our events unless they’re given a speaking role.
  • We had a board member negotiate a merger with another organization, which would be fine except she wasn’t the chair, wasn’t on any committee, and had no authority to do so.
  • Our board member joined the board of a competing organization. Somehow he couldn’t see any conflict of interest.
  • We had a board member who started a competing organization but refused to resign. And our board was too chicken to push her out!
  • One of our members pledged a bunch of money many months ago but never cut the check. Last week we saw his name listed as a leading donor for another organization.

DO YOU HAVE ANY STORIES TO SHARE?

So what about you? Have any great stories to share? If you’re willing to be public about them, please share in the comments. Or, if not, you can share them privately here and let me know if it’s OK for me to write about them anonymously.

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  • Wondering

    I don’t know on which category this board will fall. The 90% of them are the Ex. Director’s best friends (puppets). They are aware of how unhappy the staff are with the E.D., how things are not done by the head and is never accountable for her actions (lied about focus group results, making random fundraising decisions, yelling and undermining the role of the coordinators and other admin staff, never listening, always take staff complaint personally and start threatening and the list goes on. The President of the Board, the Vice president and some more of the directors are aware, but does nothing………….. I wonder why?

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      Dear Wondering: I would suspect that the primary reason for all of this is that these 90% are not coming to the organization for the right reason. Right = a passion for the mission of the organization and an unwavering sense of responsibility to do whatever is in the best interest of that mission. A board member recruited by the ED because of their personal relationship can be a big problem (not always) because they often provide cover for their pal. I am sorry for the staff of this organization and can only hope that there is somewhere in that 10% a few change agents.

  • Tim Herron

    Last year as a board member we were sued by the President for not providing a severance package when a merger of two chapters happened. The problem, the President resigned a month before the merger. The staff that he hired in his first three months of being there also left and brought legal action to the charity. All actions were dismissed as nuances and when the board would not agree to any further compensation, the rest of the employees quit. Quite a mess.

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