Dear Joan: How Do I Handle a Racist Board Member?

by Joan Garry

A racist board member. Over-reliance on special events. Hiring an Executive Director for the first time. These are the topics in this month’s edition of “Dear Joan”.

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).

This month, Joan tackles questions from a board member with a racist vice chair, an ED who wants to know how to diversify revenue streams, and another board member who wonders if it’s time to hire a full-time Executive Director.



Dear Joan: 

My board secretary is very strong. She volunteers more than most, is a strong advocate for our mission, and is seen as a leader in her community.

Unfortunately, I’ve recently discovered that she also is very vocal about her dislike for African Americans. I was horrified to come across several posts on her Facebook and Twitter accounts that were very ugly and defamatory.

To compound the problem, the community we live in (and work in) has a sizable African American community.

No one has complained to me but I just can’t let it go. I know I can’t simply ask a board member to step down because we have different views (even though her views upset me a great deal). That said, I fear a larger impact on the reputation of my organization.

Then there is one other thing. She is one of my highest performing board members. I know it’s selfish but I really need her.

And no we do not have a social media policy. Is this a board chair issue? Will a social media policy do the trick? Do we have to ask her to step down?

Board Member and Her Not So Private Opinions

Dear Not So Private:

My first reaction to this question is simply “Ugh.” I do not envy you in the slightest. But there are tough decisions to make here.

It doesn’t matter whether this board member is the highest performer or the lowest. IMHO your board members are ambassadors for your organization in all public settings. And this includes social media (which is public indeed).

As for a social media policy, I would suggest that you incorporate this into a code of conduct form each board member signs, indicating that a board member must exhibit the core values of the organization in all public forums, including social media.

In the meantime, bring the concern ASAP to your board chair along with any evidence you have of the challenging posts or tweets. The board chair should meet with the board member in question and make it clear that her problematic public statements must cease. It would be great if a draft of a code of conduct form could be presented for her review at that time so that the conversation can be framed in a larger context.

If the board member is unwilling, she must be asked to step down. She may be a high performer but if not held accountable, the board member you described may be a high performer in the short term but a racist board member will certainly become a liability to the organization in the long term.

– Joan


Dear Joan:

OK, so I have read your post about organizations being too reliant on special event revenue. I get it. But my board doesn’t. On top of that, I just don’t know how to make the shift. I understand that diversification of revenue is important but how to I get from here to there?

You Tell Me We Need Diverse Revenue Streams. Now Tell Me How

Dear How:

Great question. It’s actually easier than you might think.

Start small. Think about it in terms of a pyramid. Focus on building a big base of smaller supporters, volunteers, etc.

Use your board and your website to bring people in at low levels. Engage them, communicate with them, and maybe even give them something to do. Your goal is to move them up the ladder over time.

My friend Sylvia started her nonprofit “tour of duty” at her beloved organization as a volunteer. The organization was smart enough to cultivate and steward her. She did not have huge financial capacity but developed a development strategy that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. She also had a very successful run as board chair.

Another strategy is to see these galas and fundraisers as ‘bait.’ Who is in the room? Never leave a gala without permission from a number of attendees to have a coffee or lunch. Could be an individual, a corporate sponsor or just someone who knows absolutely everyone.

– Joan


Dear Joan:

I’ve been a member of a non-profit board for almost 20 years, serving in various capacities, including President. We are a not-for-profit arts organization with almost 900 members statewide. We currently pay a bookkeeper and newsletter designer. All other positions are volunteer. I’m wondering if we are at a point where we need to hire an ED. How does an organization move to this point?

– Ready for a Paid ED?

 Dear Ready:

I was simply going to say “you’ll know” because it will all just get to be too much for everyone. But when passion and mission are at play, people will go above and beyond anyway. So you may not figure it out until key players have burned out.

You need to be proactive.

Based on the limited information you have provided, I think you are probably close. It also depends on the services you are able to provide your members given your current resources as well as the resources you would like to provide your members.

It has to be a strategic decision. Consider a ½ day offsite to discuss this issue in particular. Where do you want to go in a year or two? What will you need to get there? Is there enough excitement and momentum about the vision to raise some seed money to hire someone to actually run the organization?

The decision to hire a full time ED comes from strategy and organizational aspirations.

– Joan

If you have further advice for any of this week’s “Dear Joans” please share in the comments below.

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