You Might Have A Dysfunctional Board If…

by Joan Garry

How do you know you have a dysfunctional board? Here are the stories 11 different people shared with me.

Little did I know that my blog post, True Tales of a Dysfunctional Board would strike such a chord with my readers. Or with my colleagues in various LinkedIn groups.

I should have known. Organizational leadership on both the staff and board sides consider it sport to criticize the lack of engagement of their boards.

But that’s in private. With people you know and trust. Surely people wouldn’t be willing to share their stories publicly, right? I mean, when it comes to sharing stories of bad board behavior, it seems to me there’s a pretty big leap between kvetching to your spouse over a martini versus sharing publicly with the world.

So when I offered the following fill-in-the-blank question in varying LinkedIn groups, I figured no one would respond.

“You might have a dysfunctional board if…?”

Oh no!

Turns out, not only are people willing to share stories of bad board behavior, most of them are perfectly willing to do it out in the open.

And some of them even gave me permission to post them here. This ought to be fun!


You might have a dysfunctional board if…  board members are told that fundraising is not part of their engagement.

– Frank Pasquini, Professional Fundraising Counsel

You might have a dysfunctional board if… the board approves every single thing the Executive Director plans.

– Susan Detwiler, Nonprofit Consultant

You might have a dysfunctional board if… your Board President says “the only people I have ever led is my family.”

– Anonymous (OK, not EVERYONE was willing to say who he/she was)

You might have a dysfunctional board if… the board chair is the executive director’s best friend.

– Bonnie Osinski, Fundraising consultant and coach

You might have a dysfunctional board if you ask the board to make a significant fundraising effort for a milestone anniversary and they vote to plant flowers.  

– Paula Brown, Executive Director at Reading Works

You might have a dysfunctional board if… the board doesn’t respond to a motion to adjourn.

– Nancy Alexander, Consultant

You might have a dysfunctional board if the board president sends their executive director flowers on secretary’s day and isn’t being ironic.

– Carol Weisman, President of Board Builders

You might have a dysfunctional board if…  your board chairs says, “Bylaws schmylaws. I don’t even know what they mean, or why we need them.” 

– Marchelle Sellers, Executive Director, Mending Kids International

You might have a dysfunctional board if… your board chair, in a discussion about trimming costs, asks how old your assistant is.

– Margot Knight, Executive Director of Djerassi Resident Artists Program

You might have a dysfunctional board if… they show up at the wrong location for a standing monthly board meeting. They are always held at the same location.

– Anonymous


OK, so it’s plenty easy to criticize the board. They never can do enough, they are never engaged enough, and they never provide sufficient support.

But let’s not forget whose board this is.

It’s yours. You as the executive director. You as the board chair. If your board is dysfunctional, who is to blame?

Short answer:  you.

Remember one thing every time you kvetch about your board:  The board you have is the board you build.

So while you may have had a good chuckle or a big gasp, do keep in mind that your fingerprints can be traced to this dysfunction. And they can also be traced to a rebuilding that creates a board your organization needs and deserves.


All these folks were willing to share their stories. Now it’s your turn. In the comments,  join the conversation and add your own stories of bad board behavior.

And then, if you haven’t already done so, consider subscribing to my email list. I only send one email each week when new content is ready. If you’re a leader at a nonprofit (board or staff), I write just for you!

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See you soon!


17 thoughts on “You Might Have A Dysfunctional Board If…”

  1. Joan, let us know when your novel on this topic is being published! Hilarity at its finest and we could seriously go all day! What does that say about all of us then? Is “dysfunctionality” contagious? I have to sheepishly admit that my misery loves the company!

  2. Joan —
    Thanks for creating this opportunity for people to share their idea of what dysfunctionality looks like within Boards. And I am sure all of us who also serve on Boards could also provide lots of fodder about dysfunctional executives. The value of sharing in an open forum is to help other people have a sense of clarity about what is acceptable and not acceptable.
    However, Joan, with this blog you have made a leap that is neither accurate or just to the people you invited to respond.
    In my case, my comments are from history with other organizations I have advised, not my own boards. If your lead question was, “What my current Board does that is dysfunctional” I am sure you would have had much different responses. That wasn’t your question. Fortunately, for me, today, I have a wonderful Board, the best I have ever had.
    I presume that most of the NP executives who have chosen to share are sharing out of their histories and experiences, personal or witnessed. I know of few people who are careless enough to share publicly their gripes with their bosses of any stripe. I never have and never would. I am guessing from what you have written today you did not consider that.
    In defense of those executives who are struggling today with a challenging Board, I take issue with a blanket assessment that if you are working for a dysfunctional board the blame is yours. When I train, I say, “Friends don’t let friends date dysfunctional boards.” Many executives sometime in the careers have inherited a governance challenge. With good governance practice and shared strategies with the volunteer leadership of the organization, that can change. But it can take time and I sympathize with those who are working their way through that process. If they cannot effect the change needed, they should move on. But many do not, because the alternative employment option for them is not better. (It looks a lot like the way abused spouses make choices about leaving their abusive partner.)
    So, thanks for starting the discussion. Clearly, there is a lot of energy around this issue. Good for those who were willing to share. Let’s not punish people for joining the discussion.

  3. Dysfunction may indeed be contagious. But I’m hoping this article not only made people laugh but also think. How did boards get this way? What can board and staff leaders do to make it different? Will keep you posted about the book but frankly, the blog takes less time and quite gratifying. Keep up your good work!

  4. Nathan. Some points well taken. (1) Clearly some folks spoke about boards they knew or were connected too – I should have made clearer and (2) absolutely there are way too many CEOs who inherit dysfunction and it does take time, good governance practice and shared strategies. I guess I was trying to make a point that far too often, CEO’s shrug their shoulders, kvetch and take no action. Lastly, apologies if you felt I misrepresented the sentiment of the post when I asked you to participate. Joan

  5. One of the biggest problems that I’ve experienced in working with boards is lack of diversity. Diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status. Lavish galas and golf tournaments are not the most effective way to generate revenue, but they are often the only types of fundraising strategies that board members will engage in, and it has much to do with who is on the board and the bad behavior that they are enabled to carry out.

  6. Ah yes. Diversity. Probably a blog topic of its own. Until I write it, here are two things to note. (1) you are absolutely right and (2) diversity begins with the WORK you do and its resonance to a diversity of people. Stay tuned.

  7. You MIGHT???????? Pamela, I am quite sure that falls into the “absolute dysfunction” category. And one other note. If the ‘retired founder’ is still the board president, that individual is not even remotely retired 🙂

  8. One of my earlier consulting gigs. The thing is this woman had been a brilliant ED and fundraiser…she simply could not relinquish the reigns. Truth is, she made fundraising impossible for me and the current ED (her son) and if it weren’t for the groundwork she had laid 30 years earlier, they would have ceased to exist in the past 7-10 years. Seems like nearly every year one or two bequest gifts come in to save them. Couple of lessons there…

  9. When one person has so much power, regardless of their skills and abilities, it can, as you indicate, cause a whole mess a trouble. Thanks Pamela for sharing the story.

  10. You might have a dysfunctional board if you ask when the election happens since terms were coming up & the board suddenly decides they don’t need term limits anymore.

  11. Megan. i think you DO have a dysfunctional board 🙂 Term limits are more important than people really understand. They are the key to a leadership pipeline. Thanks for writing.

  12. You might have a dysfunctional board if … you bring up board member recruitment and what types of skills to look for in candidates, and the vice-chair shouts that we can’t worry about that, because “we need butts in chairs.” He went on to be board chair, and that’s pretty much what we got. Until people saw how dysfunctional the board was, and what a waste of time…and left.

  13. My biggest problem is the board president keeps getting into operations. I’ve tried to do board training and he says they don’t need board training. Yesterday he fired on of my line staff without any reason and said he didn’t have to give me a reason. He has set my company up for a wrongful termination lawsuit. He sells insurance and tries to get me to let his customers into my rehab center by force even though that’s a conflict of interest. He is setting the county up for a huge lawsuit by his lack of confidentiality. He is appointed by the commissioners who are elected and they don’t seem to see the necessity of removing him from the board. I think I finally have the county attorney realizing the pending lawsuit that is coming our way. What can I do

  14. You may have a dysfunctional board if the Vice President of your board is also a member of City council and an array of other boards and acts and speaks on behalf of the board in those settings. Oh yeah, and also signs grant agreements and approves projects without first consulting the board. And the board doesn’t see a problem with any of this…

  15. Hi Joan, Thank you for sharing this article. We are based in the UK and resolve part of this problem you describe with dedicated course for non-execs, boards and trustee. It might be interesting to meet at some point. JP (on behalf of NEDonBoard)

  16. At NEDonBoard, the professional body for Non-Execs & Board members in the UK, we regularly hear stories about “strange” behavior. But we provide trainings and support to our community to ensure it get rectify! Thank you for sharing your article.

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