Ep 27: Confessions of a Terrible Board Member (with Eileen Opatut)

nonprofits are messy

What if a prospective board member looks great “on paper” but doesn’t pan out as the five-star board member you’d expected?

Is it their fault? Yours?

Is it possible to anticipate when it just won’t work?

Eileen Opatut has been an unsuccessful member of several boards and can help shed light on the experience from the board member’s perspective.

Today, Eileen and I try to answer some of these questions and tease out the subtle (and not so subtle) things that you can do to nurture and develop a board member with potential. We also discuss how to recognize when it was never going to work in the first place.

About Eileen Opatut

Eileen Opatut is a TV programming executive turned realtor/developer. She spent 8 years at the helm of The Food Network. Eileen is deeply passionate about a variety of causes and has served on several nonprofit boards. She’s smart, strategic, generous, and takes initiative.

Sounds like the perfect board member, right? And yet, Eileen has never once had a positive board experience.

In this episode:

  • Why being intentional is so critical for finding and bringing on prospective board members.
  • How a good orientation process can make a huge difference.
  • How much board communication is too much? Too little?
  • Characteristics that help somebody be successful at work but are detrimental to board service.
  • What a failed board member thinks you should look for in prospective board members.
  • The value of having non-board members on your board committees.
  • Advice on what to consider if you are approached to be on a board.
  • The importance of interviewing — for both the board prospect and the organization.

Episode Links:

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Alana Miller

    I wish we could just read the whole thing, I am a visual learner and do not want to sit here and listen to it. Something in print is easier to print out for later to refer back to.
    Please consider putting us a printed copy of the interviews

    • I so wish I could do a transcript for every podcast – to be honest I need a bigger audience before I can offer transcripts. Stay tuned.

  • Rose Bowcut

    This is FANTASTIC. Thank you for your insight and thoughts. Please tell Eileen this conversation was super helpful. I took notes and will take specific actions to make my board better. And thank you for acknowledging that 15 staff would be amazing as I am from a super small program.

    • I did in fact tell Eileen. She is so happy the conversation has been so helpful.

  • Maggie Morrison

    Joan, your sigh when Eileen said she was never interviewed for any of her board roles just made me laugh out loud! I’m sure she IS a nice person – not least for her willingness to have an honest conversation about these experiences. There’s a lot to learn here.

    • She IS a nice person – but I am of course biased. Glad you found the podcast useful.

  • Eileen’s stories gave me PTSD flashbacks. I’ve only been on “religious-based” boards, but I do remember being astounded at the first meeting (of my 2nd board) because in the space of two hours I heard people say “no” probably a dozen times. I’d never heard “no” so often in my life. And, yes, when they announced a committee no one volunteered for it. Of course, as a newcomer to the group I was the one making all the suggestions—the longer-serving board members had already learned how hopeless it was to even try. They spent most of their time complaining about the situation they were in and batting away any attempts to change it. I lasted less than a year.

    Like Eileen, I’m a “doer” and impatient with process. But surely there’s a place for people like us on the right boards? Or is the “doing” in a nonprofit more the preserve of the ED and full-time staffers? Are board members really just there to okay the budget and raise the money to pay for it? That’s the impression I came away with at the end of the podcast. I wonder if other listeners did too?

    • EB – i think there are ways to engage folks like Eileen is a “point and shoot” sort of way. We need you to help us do this “particular thing” that is of value and makes the “doer” feel valuable. you raise a good point. it aint “board or nuthin'” (cue overture to oklahoma). most orgs cant hire speech writers, messaging gurus like you or programming/marketing geniuses like eileen. but a board spot may be just the wrong way to use you.