I’m able to speak freely here because the board member you want to fire ain’t reading my blog. This board member needs no resources, no tools and no advice on how to approach board service. S/he’s got this.
The problem is this board member is toxic. In fact, that’s the board member’s name. Toxic Board Member, or TBM for short.
Harsh? Yes, but I see it often and that’s the word lots of people use – not just me.
I know you’re anxious for my “ten easy steps that a board chair or a nonprofit CEO can follow to fire toxic board members.”
I’m really sorry to disappoint you.
I don’t have any steps.
You know how to fire a board member? If you do, please comment below because I’m dying to know your recipe.
So why am I bothering with this post?
Because you can make TBM go away.
HOW DO YOU KNOW THE BOARD MEMBER IS TOXIC?
You might be laughing. I don’t need a list, you’re thinking. Anyone can see that this board member is toxic.
Here’s how to know if TBM is bringing you down.
- TBM rolls his eyes at least once at every meeting (i.e. wildly disrespectful of other board members and staff)
- TBM interacts regularly with the staff in order to bad mouth the CEO
- TBM cares more about power than the mission
- TBM complains loudly about fundraising obligations and would make a motion to eliminate the board’s give/get if he felt he had the votes.
- You have board members who are MIA and you often pray that TBM would be.
OK, so you have now established that TBM really is toxic. How do we make TBM go away?
HOW TO MAKE TOXIC BOARD MEMBER GO AWAY
So I’m sorry to report that you can’t actually fire a board member. It can damage the reputation of the board member and by extension, the organization.
However, you do have two options. First, you can secure TBM’s resignation or second (the more common strategy) you can manage TBM out.
SECURING A RESIGNATION
This happens only in the most egregious of situations. Egregious situations may include (but are certainly not limited to):
- Fraudulent activities as Treasurer.
- Revealing confidential information to the public. Anything that would have significant implications on the credibility or viability of the organization. Now board members “leak” stuff all the time (and shouldn’t) but here I’m talking about egregious leaking – say, revealing the board vote on the hiring or firing of the CEO.
- Sexual advances to any staff members.
In any of these situations, revealing the egregious action to the board would be an extreme embarrassment to TBM and securing a resignation should be fairly straightforward. It is important for people to know about the consequences of bad decisions.
I didn’t say easy. I said straightforward.
MANAGING TOXIC BOARD MEMBER OUT
Here’s how I think of it. Instead of dumping the whole bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the West, just pour slowly.
In an intentional and strategic way, the Board Chair and the CEO must work steadily to reduce Toxic Board Member’s power, minimizing his influence step by step until he disappears (resigns).
- Board Chair and CEO on exactly the same page. TBM must go and they both agree that it will take longer than either of them will like. They also must agree that each of them will have an extra burden of work to get it done.
- Board Chair connects with Governance Committee. If your board is large enough to have one, you don’t want to leave them out. You want the buy-in of this group. Be sure everyone is on the same page.
- Secure Other Allies. Board Chair and CEO go through the board list. Find a good handful (3-4-ish) that feel exactly the same way they do. Secure their buy-in around the plan and their commitment to speak up so that the Board Chair and the CEO are not the only bad guys when TBM goes off. What’s happening here is that the Board Chair is building a support team. Also, the balance of power is shifting.
- Give Additional Power to the Allies. I like the idea of some kind of ad hoc committee with an ally as Chair – it could be around board recruitment or fundraising – something where TBM is on the wrong side of the issue. See what happens here? The power dynamics continue to shift. TBM‘s melting away.
- Board Meeting Agenda: Roles and Responsibilities. Now that support has been built, the Board Chair can add some discussion to a board meeting either reminding folks of their roles and responsibilities or better yet, adding one or two that TBM will completely hate. It has to be something that will pass without him – ideally, something like raising the give/get – but anything that shows to TBM that he is terribly out of step and no one is listening to him. TBM has no allies. TBM melts. TBM resigns.
THE SIDE BENEFIT
- A few more board members have stepped up and assumed new responsibilities and power. The right kind.
- The Board Chair can feel enormous pride that she/he took real responsibility for the effectiveness of the board. Every board member will understand what happened and every single board member will be thankful for the outcome.
AND REMEMBER TO LEARN A VALUABLE LESSON
Have a meal – Board Chair and CEO. Dissect how TBM got onto the board to begin with. Meet with the chair of your Nominations or Recruitment Committee. Share the lessons and adjust your recruitment process to minimize the likelihood of it happening again.
And by all means, avoid any board prospects wearing ruby slippers.
19 thoughts on “How To Fire A Toxic Board Member”
Joan, once I was reassured this blog did not highlight my past board performances, I found the advice spot on. I’ve seen the behaviors you’ve described, and witnessed some constructive strategies that isolate the toxic person and behavior. In some instances, of course, I’ve also witnessed these individuals getting frustrated and walking out on their own — which is a very satisfying outcome.
Regrettably, however, some former board members stay or become more critical and vocal off the board than when serving within it. However, that outcome demands different ways to understand and to manage.
I’m a little surprised you didn’t mention the Governance Committee in this blog. I view one of their roles as keeping the board functioning smoothly, and helping to escort a toxic board member out seems to fall under this category.
Bob. That’s a post for another day. “Dealing With FORMER Toxic Board Members.” I have also checked around and you’ve never been green nor held anyone hostage. So you’re safe. And as mentioned, the person I describe has not subscribed to my blog. Thanks for the comment.
Pat. I think you are absolutely right and you make a most excellent point. If your board is large enough to have a governance committee, they should absolutely be roped in. I may in fact edit the post to make note of this. Thank you so much for your constructive feedback.
Another helpful subject, thanks so much. I’ve consulted with non-profits for my entire career and I’ve served on boards for 20+ years and I’m currently an ED, so I have a broad understanding and experience with Toxic Board Members, former Toxic Board Members, etc.
One tactic that I’ve found helpful is having the President (or somebody the person connects with) take the individual aside and having a direct conversation. “I know you love this organization, and I know you’re committed to the mission. We so appreciate all of your support. Do you know that in board meetings when you roll your eyes or grunt or …. that it prevents the rest of the board from exploring opportunities.” I find that the gentle, but direct calling of people on their behavior often becomes a jump-starter for larger issues. In nearly all cases the person either stepped up to the plate or we worked together to find a committee that they felt more “heard” and fulfilled with.
As others have said – a clear and consistent board member job description is the best preventative medicine for this.
Thanks Joan – you’re fabulous!
hi Joan, nice article. Just wondering: do boards include anything in the bylaws about how they will handle “non-helpful” board members? Also, I see an opportunity to focus on the group dynamics and the skills of the (other) board members during meetings; for example, what’s the culture of the team in terms of people speaking up? How does the facilitator/chair deal with the contributions of the toxic board member? I think that US culture and US business culture indicate that it’s impolite to challenge someone, even when they’re disrupting the group, so the whole group suffers because of one person. Just focusing here on behavior in meetings – sometimes the facilitator can attend to the comments from the toxic person, and ask something in a diplomatic way. But I also think that the board members – and all of us as participants in a board or a group – have a role to play in diplomatically speaking up to this person; for example, if they’re complaining about something – “If you could turn your complaint into a request, what would you be asking for?” or “I wonder what need/wish is not being met for you?” or “This person’s comments seem to be taking us off-track; how do you all want to handle that” – or, “can we set that aside and get back on track?” Would these be helpful in the situations/toxic members you’re thinking of?
Abby. Thanks for weighing in. Maybe other readers know better but all I have seen as it relates to ‘non-helpful’ board members is about attendance at board meetings. Some by laws state that missing X number of board members automatically take you off the board. We had this at GLAAD. We would then vote back in board members who really were ready to re-commit. Sadly, toxic board members actually show up! As for the role of other board members, you are so write. The challenge is that so few actually will speak up and out. They silently roll their eyes and complain later over cocktails. And lastly, I really love your questions and I think they are terrific tools to highlight things and may in fact be easier ways for fellow board members to “raise concerns” without feeling confrontational. Thanks again.
Craig. Thanks for your great comments. Wish more Board Chairs were willing to have those difficult conversations. It’s one of the reasons I do a lot of work with leadership teams on how to have an effective difficult conversation so they feel constructive and less difficult.
Hi, Sorry I’m not any good in reading long comments, but I have a problem with a non profit cultural center were the director is the toxic board member brining the organization to the ground.
How would I, as a community member and constant volunteer go about chopping of the head of the organization (the director) while preserving the body to have a transplant (before its too late)?
While I see the most recent comment is a year ago, the beauty of this subject matter is that it is ageless!
If only boards would enforce terms of service, some of this could be ameliorated by letting terms lapse. Some organizations do and others don’t, which in my opinion is a huge mistake. Same with committee and event chairmanships.
I’m not saying that the preferable way isn’t for someone to have a conversation but let’s be honest, most people just won’t do it. But that’s a whole other story, and a whole other blog posting!
Thanks for listening!
Lori. You are totally right. Term limits are key to minimizing the long term effect of a toxic board member. AND the key to building a leadership pipeline. There is no incentive to build that pipeline when you have leaders (good or bad) who never leave. Not sure I’ve written about the critical nature of term limits. Just added it to the list. Thanks.
I know this is an older blog, but… What do you do when the TBM is the President? He does not perform any of the duties of the President because he doesn’t like them, except to say no to everything. He hates change, he will not call a meeting, will not chair a meeting, will not sign documents, will not fund-raise, will not go to meetings to represent our organization. He does perform valuable work for the organization and he is well known and well liked in the community. We want him to continue doing the work he does so well, but let someone else do the work he hates to do. He threatens to, but will not resign. He’s been president for years. So far others have filled in for him, but things have reached a point that we need him to support our program (I don’t want to go into details, he does not search the internet much, but others might). If he doesn’t it could be a major problem and affect our future, negatively, for the next few years, not to mention lose community confidence in us. Talking to him doesn’t work, we’ve tried, a close friend of his tried.
shoot me an email at email@example.com and cut and paste this. i will offer some brief specific advice.
“So I’m sorry to report that you can’t actually fire a board member. It can damage the reputation of the board member and by extension, the organization.”
Speaking from experience, I have to respectfully disagree. Usually, TBMs have reputations well beyond your board for being toxic. Having them ON your board is what is hurting your organization’s reputation.
Once a board members resign, are they obligated to share documents related to the non profit organization? And what are the rights of the new board if the old members refuse to share organization related documents and information. For example, access to organization related websites, fundraising data, previous list of donors, etc.
Joan, we are dealing with same, the toxic board member is also the wife of the President, who is also toxic but less so, and only serving because his wife wants him to. He doesn’t care one bit about the organization and had freely admitted so. My question is this: can the remainder of the board call an informal non-meeting in order to freely discuss the issues without the toxic people in the room? There is a rule in our by laws that say a board member can be voted out by the board if there is a 2/3 vote. Help!