I Will Never Join Another Board. Never.

Could she be suffering from Post Traumatic Board Member Disorder?

Could she be suffering from Post Traumatic Board Member Disorder?

There’s an entire universe of wonderful men and women – socially conscious, committed to a vast array of causes. They are smart, they have access to funding, and they themselves may have capacity. They have so much to offer the nonprofit community.

Sadly, they sit today on the sidelines, stricken with a debilitating illness.

It’s called Post Traumatic Board Member Disorder or PTBMD for short.

Are you one of them? Do you have a friend who is undiagnosed?

Curing this disorder must be a core priority of the nonprofit sector. We simply cannot afford talent on the sidelines, just because of previously horrible nonprofit board experiences.

What exactly is PTBMD? How did it get so bad? And what can we do about it?

First the symptoms.


The germs of PTBMD are typically found in certain board conference rooms. All of the following can present as evidence of potential PTBMD:

  • A board chair who thinks that the ED is actually in charge of the meeting, thinks that meetings run themselves, or, frankly, doesn’t do much thinking at all.
  • An uncontrolled toxic board member – negative, dominating and generally unwilling to fulfill his responsibilities.
  • A meeting in which you as a board member are never asked your opinion about anything.
  • A board of directors that has never learned to have honest conversations and disagree constructively.
  • Insufficient number of board members with leadership attributes.
  • A leadership transition, especially if it is a termination of the CEO.
  • An executive director that badly needs to move on (a prima donna who rules with an iron fist or is just simply incompetent) but has a board chair who provides cover.


  • You’re already feeling sad because you have dreams about your day job. Now your anxiety triples as you realize a toxic board environment has infiltrated your dreams.
  • You no longer stand to make contact with some of your fellow board members and/or leaders.
  • You make a noble (but failed) effort to change things around but find that too few board members have the nerve, energy, or commitment to take on the issue and confront it head on.
  • You resign from the board swearing you will never join another. You can’t even read the direct mail that comes from the organization.
  • Hearing the name of your previously beloved organization leads to nausea.


If you’re suffering from PTBMD, there is hope. All of us who work in nonprofit need you to follow these six steps:

Step 1: Recall what drew you to the organization to begin with

Remember the feeling of pride you had, knowing that you would be a lead ambassador of such a wonderful organization. If you can no longer remember, ask a spouse or close friend. Sit with that for a while.

Step 2: Talk to a friend who sits on a board that is not toxic

Buy her lunch and ask her to tell you what that feels like. Watch your friend’s eyes light up. Sure she will offer critiques and frustrations but she will talk about the work with passion and pride. Sit with that for a while.

Step 3: Make a list of organizations doing great work that you feel passionate about

You know there are lots of them. I bet you know about these organizations through friends, donors, or staff. So here comes the hard part. Call your source. Pick up the phone and begin due diligence. For those with serious PTBMD, consider investigating a board of an organization you care about with a friend or colleague who is already involved in some way. That person can be like a “sponsor.”

Step 4: Don’t join right away

You are valuable to any organization you care about. They will recruit you quickly. You have prior board experience. And you have sought them out. But please, not so fast. You’re still too fragile. So attend an event. Maybe volunteer. Do your homework.

Step 5: Finally, jump back into the pool

It’s time. Life is short. You were drawn to board service once and it was an awful experience. You’ve had a break. You’ve gone through the first four steps. You’re as ready as you will be. And most importantly, veteran board members with “battle scars” have a lot to teach fellow new board members. You know what toxic looks like. Help your new organization avoid making the same mistakes.

Step 6: Take the call from someone you know afflicted with PTBMD.

Help them recover. Help them get off the bench.

One of the best sources for board member recruitment is the bench — thousands of men and women who had a tour of duty on a board. Maybe they termed off. Maybe they had one or two terms and then were too busy and had to step away.

Or maybe they are sufferers from Post Traumatic Board Member Disorder.

This chronic and debilitating illness keeps smart, skilled and passionate board members on the sidelines. And it’s not talked about. Instead, board members just go away mad, traumatized or something in between, and the nonprofit community has no access to these invaluable resources.

Don’t let a horrible nonprofit board experience stop you. If you suffer, please follow my six-step plan. If you know someone who does, please forward this post. I bet they will see themselves here and it might just ignite and put them back on the field where they belong.

Where we really need them.

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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  • Beautiful. A great way to communicate the endemic disease of nonprofit organizations. Well done and most importantly, it drives the message home.

  • Robert. So appreciate your feedback. There are SO many stories about “recovering” board members and it is such a shame that so much talent sits on the sidelines.

  • Miranda Castro

    this is very beautifully written – it even made me laugh with relief
    i found another solution to my own PTBMD – i offer my services ‘remotely’ … i’ll work hard for any number of non-profits – doing any number of jobs that need doing – answering happily to one person or a committee
    i am afraid i have made a solemn vow never to sit on another board this lifetime
    the power plays and petty rivalries are a pain – a tolerable bore
    but the toxic, evil-doings of one vile person and her trenchmen that wrecked our beautiful board and nearly killed the organization were beyond terrible
    and it was lovely to read there are steps to recovering
    thank you!

  • Thank you for taking time to comment. I like your idea for solving PTBMD. i am sorry your experience was so toxic but glad you are finding a way to give back!

  • jahphotogal

    I feel this article is only a part of the story and I’m trying to figure out why. I’m a long-time ED who list several dozen ex-board members
    on our “alumni board” – some of whom probably left with a bad feeling. I
    have no doubt some of it is my fault, especially in the early years.
    But how many bright talented board members join a board saying things
    like, “here’s how we did things on the last board I was on – you should
    do it that way too” rather than, “how do you do things here? I’d like to
    learn?” or who never visit programs, or who, when you ask them what
    attracted them to your board and organization, can’t answer the question
    because they wanted to join for status, or social reasons? After 13
    years of having to accommodate endless new generations of members who
    insist that you’re doing it wrong and they know what you should do
    differently (like the person who convinced the board we needed a program
    committee, and then emailed me 7 days before the first meeting with a
    list of items she wanted prepared for the meeting that would easily take
    2 full days to complete – as if I and my staff didn’t already have plenty to do.
    Part of this problem can be fixed by changing the board culture – adding
    orientations, board mentors, etc – but who in a small organization has
    time to manage all that, when there are programs to be run, money to be
    raised, and all the other things we do every day. (And she is going to
    use this data to help decide whether we’re serving the right
    constituency with the right services – you can imagine how I and my
    dedicated staff would feel if a couple of volunteers who pay attention
    to us for three hours a month decided we’re running the wrong
    programs.) After 25 years in this field, I am perilously close to
    coming to the conclusion that: if everyone is doing it wrong, most
    boards are dysfunctional, and we’ve created a whole industry of
    consultants and their blogs and newsletters to fix us, it’s the system
    itself that is screwed up. There has got to be a better way to run
    organizations. Sorry to rant on you – I stumbled upon this blog via
    somebody’s Facebook posting and I guess this one just triggered a
    long-simmering issue!

    • jahphotogal

      By the way I tried to post under my real name but Disqus wouldn’t let me since I already have an account with my nom de internet.
      –Jenny Hansell

  • Cheryl H

    I am the ED of a non profit. I would be the one who runs the meetings, because no one else on the executive committee does it. I do ask for opinions and also try to explain to the newer board members, some of the history the organization has. I am most often met by blank stares. I would love to go to the meeting, give my report and let someone else control the rest. I do not want anyone to leave my board feeling they are not being productive or that I am running everything. I have been with the organization over 15 years. How can I help my board members?