Dear Joan: Our Founder Just Can’t Let Go

over-involved founder

“You actually made a piñata of your board chair as a team building exercise at your retreat? 1) That is hilarious. 2) You’re going to need extra sessions.”

Each month, Joan responds to readers who send emails asking for nonprofit advice, practical solutions, or just general therapy (Joan tries not to make direct comments on a reader’s psychological state — that’s called practicing without a license.) You can send your questions to Joan by clicking here

Dear Joan: What do you do with an overly involved founder and an under-involved board?

– Development Director who knocks and no one answers

Dear Knocker: Ah, the blessing and the curse of a founder. You are far from alone. Trust me.

Of course, there are many thoughtful founders who care about the legacy of the organization and attempt to build an organization to last.

Then there are the rest. You know, the ones where the organization is integrally (and dysfunctionally) linked to the founder’s personal identity.

When the latter is true, everyone else plays second fiddle. Tough situation.

So what to do?

Sometimes it can help to create some other entity that you can offer to take the lead on. Start building the next generation of board members with a Young Professionals or Leaders Advisory board. Work with them independently of your founder and see how that goes.

Do some psychological introspection about the motivations of your founder. Is the founder over-involved by habit? If so, there is hope to offer to take work off the founder’s plate. S/he might thank you for it.

But if it is all about ego (and this is pretty common), don’t fight it. Instead, work with it. Change the framing. Talk about how the founder deserves a great board that is fully engaged; that’s part of her team. Perhaps the founder doesn’t really know what a good board looks like.

Perhaps this will help: Here’s What a Great Board Looks Like

– Joan


The Headless Board

Dear Joan: I am a board member who sees no leadership coming from our chair. He has delegated the running of the meetings to the executive director. Meanwhile the Executive Director acts as if she is intruded on if we ask questions. And she often explains things in a way we cannot understand.

– Board Member on a Headless Board

Dear Headless: I worked with a board last year – they thought the E.D. was supposed to run the meetings. So at least you know the basics.

You know the obvious answer to this question, right? Your instincts are solid, you seek out resources to be a good board member, you ask questions to folks like me.

YOU SHOULD BE THE BOARD CHAIR! I’d vote for you right now.

So maybe that is not an option.

On the other hand, if you are not understanding the work of the organization and cannot ask smart, insightful questions, guess what? YOU ARE AN IRRESPONSIBLE BOARD MEMBER!

The E.D. is not the problem here. The board chair is the problem. He is not providing supervision, direction to the E.D. so that he knows what is expected of him in his interactions with the board.

You can’t be alone here. Other board members feel the same way. Gotta. So get a group together and approach the board chair. One of you needs to offer to run for chair.

And your passion for the organization has to trump your fear of a difficult conversation.

And if you’re not 100% certain how a board meeting should be run, here’s a sample board agenda.

– Joan


Stop Interfering With the Staff

Dear Joan: I’m the new board president of a nonprofit and I can’t get it through our board members’ thick skulls that they shouldn’t interfere with the day to day operations of the staff. We talk about it all the time. I’ve even brought in someone to train the board on the role of the board vs. staff and nothing is sinking in.

Recently, a board member had a great idea for something that was a staff function. I encouraged him to suggest it to senior staff; he wanted it as a board meeting agenda item. Now he’s mad.

– Chair of Thick Headed Board

Dear Board Chair: First off, take consolation that thousands of readers just read this and said “Can s/he please be on my board. You have, by virtue of fighting this good fight with the thick heads, illustrated that you are a rock star board chair.

There’s only one problem. You have no rock star board members.

If you are as smart, capable and passionate about your organization as you seem, it’s time to stop banging your head against those thick skulls and work with your executive director and development staff to identify new board members who really understand their governance role. If you start now to bring in a new “class” of great board members, that group will, in a year’s time, begin to lead with you.

And the folks who get mad? They will leave and go find another board where they can pretend to be staff.

If you’re not sure how to do it, here are some tips: How to Build the Board You Want

– Joan


If you’d like Joan to respond to your question in a future “Dear Joan,” please click the following link to let her know what you’re struggling with.

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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