Help! My Board Chair is a Wimp!

by Joan Garry

I’ve got a true story for you. It’s so ridiculous. Except that something like it happens a lot at nonprofits. And I know exactly how I feel about that. Mad.

Hysterical. Unbelievable. Infuriating.

I’ve got a true story for you. It’s so ridiculous, I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it.

Except that something like it happens a lot at nonprofits. And I know exactly how I feel about that.


An email subscriber sent this story to me. If you haven’t already, you should subscribe to my emails… I send lots of goodies to my subscribers.

So the story… I’m changing a few details for privacy reasons and because I’m nice.

Here’s the story. More or less.


Small town. The center of culture lives here at this library. And the building is a jewel in the town. Historic. Small staff. Small local board. Not a lot of money for board education. Actually no money.

Also, not a lot of role clarity. In fact two staff members are also board members.


It’s board meeting time. The library director presents a new proposal to the board. There has been a request from the Lion’s Club. The mayor of the small town is the head of the Lion’s Club. Someone has donated a statue to the Lion’s Club and the club has asked if it could be put in front of the library. The club has no building of its own and the library is the most beautiful, prominent building in town.

So it’s the perfect spot.

For this…


Now I can’t actually use the real picture (protecting the not-so-innocent). But I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for anyway. Because in addition to being hideous, it also has a drinking fountain component to it.

Great for kids!


Questions galore from the board. That’s good. Board members should ask questions.

Will there be costs? Oh yes, we’ll have to be connected to the library water system. And we’ll have to make some adjustments to the fountain to make it handicapped accessible.

I’m sure there were other questions. I sure hope someone asked WHY? I cannot imagine what the answer could possibly have been.

The conversation went on for well over an hour.

Really??? Don’t you think there were better things the board could be talking about?

I would have called the question as soon as I saw the picture.

Finally, the question was called and the board wisely voted against the motion. No hideous lion fountain in front of our beautiful library.

But wait…


The library director stormed out of the room, furious at the results of the vote. The board began to shake in its boots (paws?) that the director was so angry. The Chair of the board made a new motion to rescind the prior motion. This motion passed and the board agreed that further discussion was warranted.


The discussion of the lion statue was all consuming for the library board for the next FIVE MONTHS. I have changed a few key details but this is not one of them.

I’m not sure why they aren’t still talking about it, now nearly a year later, but at some point about five months into discussions I cannot even imagine, the board called the question again, and voted against the motion.

No statue. This time, the director didn’t just leave the meeting. She left the organization.

The library has a new interim director and the lion statue is nowhere to be seen in that small town.


Subscribers rely on my blog for practical takeaways so I will not disappoint you.

  • From time to time, I believe a board member can ask a question that has only three letters in it. WTF?
  • If you are a board chair, take a few minutes and do me a favor. Count up the total number of hours in a year that you meet with your board. OK, got the number? Now you should consider it your job to make sure that 75-80% of those hours make board members feel valuable and valued.
  • If you are a board chair, ask yourself this question: are you afraid to make decisions for fear of upsetting the staff leader? You need to stop being a wimp. It doesn’t serve you or your nonprofit.Please do the following for your organization. Go into executive session at your next board meeting without the staff leader and have a conversation, “I’d like to talk about our role as a board and our authority and how and when we exert that authority.” Get real. Because if you are a weak board, you know what will happen?


  • If you are a staff leader who knows in your heart that your board would do anything for you (including agreeing to install the above fountain), take a look in the mirror. It may feel good but it is not good. It is not good for your organization.


Did you just say, “That is one wacky story. That would never happen in a board meeting in my organization?”

Forgive me. I don’t believe you.

Ridiculous conversations happen at nonprofit board meetings all across the country. They just don’t always have such fabulous visuals.

I think about all the clients who are breathless, who tell me they never stop working. It’s time for you (board and staff) to take an inventory of all the possible ways you waste time. And make an intentional change.

  • Meetings that start late
  • Meetings with no agendas
  • Meetings where folks report on information that could have been written in a two-paragraph email
  • Discussions where everyone needs to be heard but everyone says the same thing
  • Asking people’s opinions when you have already made up your mind
  • Board members who make the same comment another board member made but take twice as long to make it
  • Staff member who says at a meeting: “I really have nothing to report” and then talks for 15 minutes.

Be honest. In the last 30 days, you have wasted time. You have had your own “lion fountain” moment.

Own it. Take responsibility for it. And remember. As a nonprofit leader, you get to decide how the staff and most valuable volunteers use their precious time.

There will always be too much to do. There will always be too little time. Take control and do whatever you can to make sure that you don’t waste a moment of it.


Care to share your own “Lion Fountain” moment? Consider this like “True Confessions.” Could be cathartic for you.

Or it could make for another good blog post. 😉

Share in the comments below.

The truth is that there is no time to waste.

6 thoughts on “Help! My Board Chair is a Wimp!”

  1. Okay I work at a private non profit school. One of our board members was trying to shut us down to fold us into her chosen place. Our wimpy leader let the vote happen and guess what voted to close the school. One week later after scaring our parents and finally getting parental involvement. We voted to keep it open. This cost us a teacher and an educational assistant. Can you say instability? If our director had kept control the first vote would not have happened. But our board chair blamed it on being new. I think most of my office is on stealth job hunt. Oh yeah this has had repercussions we lost students and people. Finally recovering, but if our chair had stopped and taken control this would not have happened. I like them and they care about the school, but weak leadership.makes it hard.

  2. This is so unfortunate yet so true. I have left organizations due to a soft board chair. I realized it was a waste of my time. I was with one organization that had 2 state representatives come to assist with planning of the yearly fundraiser. There were two toxic members who kept shooting down every suggestion the representatives presented( they obviously did not understand the significance) A volunteer commented how inspiring an alumna’s speech (previous event) was and they noticed the children hanging on her every word. Everyone nodded their heads in agreement except the two toxic members who said that can absolutely not happen again. Speakers must be warned about their times (note: event ended 15 min early) I thought in my head. What!! the alumna’s speech is the very reason the organization exists, yes she went a little long but every donor in the audience heard and seen the results of their donations.This was my first meeting so no I did not speak up. I ran into the board chair at grocery store and just had to ask her why she allows that behavior and based on her response I could just tell that she is so overwhelmed and is intimidated by the two toxic members. I continued my volunteer committment and left soon after.

  3. Kat. Sorry to hear this “lion statue moment” for your school. The other object lesson in this is to recruit carefully with leadership in mind. Weak board chairs are a result of a dearth of strong candidates.

  4. Kellie. I hope others read this comment carefully. A deeply committed board member threw her hands up and quit b/c of how poorly the board was run and how time was wasted. There is no time to waste and no dedicated person to lose.

  5. How about a board meeting in which a member wanted the board to vote on how much to ask for a “buy it now” line on our Silent Auction bid sheets for our annual gala? The ED and the board chair just sat their, saying nothing. Finally, another board member stepped in to say, this is totally not appropriate for a board vote–this is what we hire staff to do, make decisions like this and execute them. How can board members (and worse, leaders) be so ill-informed as to think this is what board meetings should be about? Scary…

Leave a Comment