True Tales of Dysfunctional Boards

by Joan Garry

Here are the funniest “train wreck nonprofit board” stories that have been shared with me.

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.


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.


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.


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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10 thoughts on “True Tales of Dysfunctional Boards”

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. I served on a volunteer board and only attended one meeting – that one meeting was enough to let me know that it was a totally dysfunctional board that was being run unilaterally by a condescending power obsessed unqualified puppet master past president dictator and her clueless patronizing minions. The board enabled this person by making excuses for her unprofessional and bullying behavior – “That’s just how she is” (shrug). I was even told that others had left since they were not able to contribute due to her rejecting their input or hindering their involvement in a way that would have furthered their mission. I resigned after she voted down an idea that would have greatly helped the organization expand before the idea even had a chance to be heard or explained. The incoming president puppet actually told the board that if any grants came their way, she would use them for her own org where she worked and got paid vs the board she was serving as president on. She then complained about people having a personal agenda for serving on the board while she shamelessly inhaled other member’s contacts and grant leads. So lame…

  5. The non profit I’m dealing with now is exactly like this, only now things have gotten really nasty. The E.D has hired this “business and HR manager”, who has NO HR background but they’ve been friends since childhood. Besides abusing staff and members alike, she’s firing people left and right to make room for more friends and family. There’s multiple wrongful termination suits been filed against the organization. The staff have unionized, and the E.D has broken multiple labor laws while trying to prevent this, and now a strike is looming. The Board Chair has made it her personal mission to obstruct ALL access to the board from staff and members, and demands from the rest of the board unquestioned loyalty to the E.D under the ruse of “unity of direction.” There have been multiple resignations from the board due to the chair elevating evasiveness and stonewalling into an art form, not to mention her propensity to act on behalf of the baord unilaterally, all the time. Sponsors have been lost. The membership is scattered and divided. I am seriously considering seeking legal counsel regarding derivative action.

  6. I have belonged to a professional association board for several years, we had gotten to the point where motions, a budget and conflict of interests were kept in line. We now have a new director of programs who is perilously there to self promote, and is banging heads with members and directing meetings to suit her schedule. The sad thing is the board does not see it, (they may) but they are so happy to tick off an contributing member they chose not to. We had the same position self promote the last time. It is understood people need to get something out of it, but when turn out is down, morale is down and credit for other work is being taken it’s time to get out.

  7. Above is a list of 14 reasons to have term limits (my organization is three 2-year terms). It means that underperforming board members have an out without a defined end time. In many cases even those involved decide to move on and with term limits there is a date to deal with the issue. In the very rare case that after 6 years of service someone wants to continue on the board, they can certainly remain involved for one year and then rejoin the board a year later.

  8. A Trustee recently stated at a board meeting that, in times of cash flow trouble, ,meeting payroll should be the organization’s lowest priority. If there isn’t enough money to pay utilities, vendors, and Trustee reimbursements, then some staff “clearly need to be fired.”

  9. Softness.
    Board members dont hold each other accountable because they dont want to hurt other board member’s feelings.

  10. Our nonprofit board lets advisory people to vote on anything except spending money
    I think this is not proper
    They attend boardeetings just like board members. They are all great people but I don’t think this is proper. When I object two people say that we value their opinion which I do but Something in my gut tells me this isn’t right.

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