What to Do with Board Members Who Don't Do Anything

In this Board Cafe column, we look at short-term and long-term strategies for the board members known as deadwood or worse:

"He never comes to meetings or does anything. Why does he even stay on the board?" "She always says she'll take care of it and then she doesn't follow through. Aaagh!"

Whose responsibility is it to "do something" about a board member who is AWOL, deadwood, undependable, a procrastinator, or worse? Regretfully the answer is: Yours. If you're the board president or an officer, you have a special role, but every board member has a stake - and therefore a responsibility - A in all members being active. In some cases you may need to talk with the executive director about improving the way he or she works with board members. If you're the executive director, you may need to discuss the situation with board leadership.

You must do two things in the case of a board member who is not participating. First, you must do something. The problem is likely only to get worse, and nonparticipating board members have a demoralizing impact on even the best of boards. Second, be confident and hopeful. Many board members just need a little reminder to be more conscientious, and others will be grateful that you've given them a graceful way to relinquish tasks or even leave the board. Things will work out.

Short-term strategies

  • Check to be sure that expectations were made clear to the board member before he or she joined the board. "I know you joined the board recently and I'm not sure that you realize that we ask all board members to attend the annual dinner and, hopefully, to help sell tickets. Let me explain to you what most board members do, so you can see whether you'll be able to work on this with us."
  • Hold a board discussion at which expectations are reconsidered and reaffirmed. Agree on a list of minimal expectations for every board member, and ask people to suggest how they might individually help as well.
  • Be sensitive to possible health issues or personal reasons why a good board member isn't participating as much as he or she has in the past.
  • Transfer responsibilities to someone else. "I'm concerned about finishing the revision of the personnel policies. Since you're so busy, maybe it would work out for the best if John took your notes on the policies and developed a first draft."
  • Together with the board member, explore whether he or she really has the time right now to be an active board member. "I'm calling to check in with you since you haven't been able to make a meeting in the last several months. Are you temporarily a lot busier than usual? We really want to have your participation, but if it isn't realistic, perhaps we should see if there's a less time-consuming way than board membership for you to be involved."

Longer-term strategies

  • Make it possible for individuals to take a leave of absence from the board if they have health, work, or other reasons why they cannot participate fully for a while. An individual can, for example, take a six-month maternity leave or a disability leave.
  • Have a board discussion or conduct a written board survey on what makes it difficult for people to participate fully. "Are there things we can change about the frequency, day, time, or length of board meetings that would make it easier for you to attend?" "Are there things about the way that board meetings are conducted that would make it easier for you to attend or that would give you more reason to want to attend?"
  • Consider whether board participation is meaningful to board members. Have lunch with semi active members or the executive director: "I'm sensing that board participation just isn't as substantive or significant as some board members want it to be. What do you think are the reasons, and what do you think we can do to make board membership more meaningful?"
  • Revise what is expected of board members. Perhaps responsibilities have been given to a board member that are unrealistic for any but the super-board-member. Reduce the number of committees and utilize short-term task forces instead. Redesign jobs and responsibilities to fit the ability of a busy achiever to accomplish them.

And what if you are the one who isn't as active as you had expected to be? Fix the situation either by going to the next meeting and committing yourself to something big, or by calling the board chair and explaining that you're just too busy to be a good board member, and you'd like to part ways on good terms.

See also:

This article is one of dozens included in The Best of the Board Cafe Second Edition, to be available in September of 2009. Click here to pre-order your copy from the publisher, or here to download a hardcopy order form.

Comments (21)

  • How do you handle a board member who will fight about any comment or suggestion that is made during a board meeting but is full of love and compliments any other time. I believe it is called " brown nosing".

    Sep 01, 2009
  • We on a project found a board member who was asked to modernize accounting systems to use computer, and didn't do it. We promoted this board member to an advisory committee, ran a testimonial dinner in members' honor, gave member a plaque, and retired member, and then got the job done by someone more with it.

    Sep 01, 2009
  • Congratulations . . . sounds like it worked.  But it also sounds like a lot of trouble for a lot of people! :) Jan

    Sep 11, 2009
  • How can an ED either goose into action, or move out an inactive board chair ? I don't think it is appropriate to go behind her back to other board members, but she rarely does what she says she'll do...

    Sep 02, 2009
  • I am an ED who has dealt with this issue. I cannot say I have a "fully engaged" Board but I did have some success with having individual lunches with unproductive Board members to seek thier interests and expertise and also with having a Board retreat where they were asked to read a book like "Good to Great" or "Called to Serve". After this, I actually had a non-active member say "I don't want to be a seat warmer".

    Sep 04, 2009
  • In some organizations, it is Board leadership's responsibility to nurture and prompt its members, rather than the ED's. An ED who feels that her work is being hampered by nonperformers at the board level may need speak to her board confidant. In that case, "going being the recalcitrant's back" is appropriate.

    Sep 14, 2009
  • As a board chair, I would hope that the E.D. I work with would come to me with such an issue and discuss it honestly. Let her know this is happening, and that it has an impact on you and the organization, and what those impacts are. Then try to come up with a solution together. (Our board has very recently implemented an Action List that will be sent out after every meeting to all members, specifying the commitments they made at the meeting. Then members are asked to report on their progress on each item at the following meeting, putting accountability in place.) Of course, I don't know your relationship with your board chair, but if it is even halfway decent I'd recommend this course of action first. Of course, if this does not work or your relationship with the chair is not good (another issue entirely), I agree with the poster who said you need to take this to another member with whom you do have a good relationship.

    Sep 16, 2009
  • What do you do about a board member who insists on turning professional issues personal?

    Sep 02, 2009
  • We have a similar issue. It's a small community and everyone knows what's going on with everyone else. Professional discussions with non-professionals always seem to turn personal no matter what. And any grudges are known in the community and carried for years.
    Great question, but I have no advice. Anyone else?

    Sep 11, 2009
  • The fact that in smaller towns everyone knows one another is believed by people in big cities to be an ADVANTAGE of small towns!  :)

    The "grudges carried on for years" occurs in families, too. In those cases there's usually nothing that can be done about the person carrying the grudge. There are really only two strategies. One is to call the person on it: "I know that X grievously wronged you in 1972 . . . do you think you can put that aside in this discussion?" The other one is to proceed cheerfully forward as if you don't know the grudge exists: "I've already asked X to chair the run/walk! Isn't that great!"

    The risk with the first is a blow-up. The risk with the second is that the grudge gets turned against you, too. The only other thing I can think of is to engage in some strategic tire-puncturing before every board meeting.

    Sep 11, 2009
  • Every board position should have a unique volunteer job descrption and every Board Member should have a required orientation. If you do those two things you will solve most of your deadwood problems before they ever begin. When offers to join our board are made; they are contingent on attending an orientation. Those who can't attend are met with the comment - "Perhaps next year you will be available", and then we move on to someone else.
    Another advantage of having unique volunteer job descriptions is it forces you to recruit for specific talents and backgrounds and it keeps you from adding the friends of Board members. - just because they are available.

    Sep 03, 2009
  • Some of these comments remind me of an old saying, adapted: "There's no such thing as a board problem without a first and last name." If there isn't good leadership on the board, I think it only makes sense to focus on recruiting that leadership rather than trying to change the people who are on the board already! Jan

    Sep 04, 2009
  • An inactive board member is a board member who doesn't waste my time. If we're not making quorum for meetings they are a problem, otherwise I'm grateful.

    Sep 09, 2009
  • Anonymous

    All too often, nonprofit board members and ED’s emphasize status over service during their board recruitment seasons. So, people with big names and deep pockets are recruited. Once on the board, nonprofit executives and board members gripe about the lack of engagement of these board members. Is it really that surprising? What’s surprising to me is that nonprofits repeat this same recruitment method and still wonder why nothing changes at the board level.
    Why do nonprofits continue to do the same things, but expect different results? When will we say enough is enough?!
    On the flip side, some organizations want deadwood board members, as long as their name carries weight on company letterhead. This is one of the barriers of board service for young professionals who are ready and willing to do something, but are invisible to those in decision-making positions.
    If you have any advice for 20-something's like me who are trying to serve on nonprofit boards and go against the recruitment current, we'd love to have you share your advice on our blog (www.boardlifematters.org).
    This issue isn’t discussed enough, so thank you for raising it. Hopefully it also raises some eyebrows.
    Alexis Terry

    Sep 10, 2009
  • We are currently having this problem, and the demoralization issue is huge indeed. We are a hands-on, hard working board, and our specific issue is around members who do not want to fundraise, and who donate little to no money themselves. This is very frustrating to other board members who are trying their best to raise money and who do give. One solution we are trying is assigning these members with other, very specific projects and/or roles that are not fundraising-heavy, but contribute in a less direct way.
    Also, to Alexis Terry's comment: We seem to have the opposite problem. We have tended to fall into the trap of recruiting people who do not have the time or money to be of real support, and then they eventually resign or are asked to step down. If we were to recruit someone with deep pockets who did nothing but donate money and get money, we would not be complaining, we would be rejoicing!

    Sep 16, 2009
  • Time always shows which board members are truly connected to others. Sadly, you just don't know when they join. The board mirrors the organization really. Most boards I've seen have only a handful of requirements, aside from attending meetings and serving on a committee matching their expertise, they are supposed to donate generously, participate in your organization (buy tickets, etc.) and bring other people to your events. Bottom line:Can't do those things, then don't waste the organizations efforts by accepting the nomination.

    Oct 23, 2009
  • Anonymous

    Hi there. What do you do when your board president is one of the problems?? Out of 10 members, we have 3 who just don't engage, and he's one of them. He's very casual and isn't into protocol, yet they expect me as the new E.D. to take the organization to the next level. How can I tactfully tell the board to do their job and govern? They've really left me, the E.D., to steer the whole ship. It's like the child telling the parent to be a parent.

    Mar 22, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I need some advice re our non for profit retirement village board members?

    Feb 23, 2014
  • Anonymous

    I'd like some guidance on how to deal with what appears to be an entire board of directors who are finding out that a director of operations has been (allegedly) helping himself to not only significant amounts of cash but also inventory of controlled items which he purchased for the company using his own credit cards. Even though this board claims to be transparent, no one (besides them) ever seems to know when or where they meet in order to bring things to the table for discussion.

    Apr 30, 2014
  • Anonymous

    Our E.D. had run the agency for 24 years. About 3 years ago she decided to resign and started setting dates for her last day. When that day approached, she would set another date 3 or 4 months later. This went on and on through at least 2 different board directors who quit in total frustration. The entire board did not want to vote her out because of her many political connections. When I took over as board director, morale was very bad, the E.D. had essentially stopped working but still collecting a paycheck and still postponing her retirement. The E.D. was against anything new for fundraising, recruiting board members, etc. So, after about a year as board director and the E.D. changed her retirement date three times, I had had enough. Here's what I did to solve the problem and force the E.D. out. In one of the board meetings, I addressed the E.D. with a short speech. After thanking her for her service, etc., I said emphatically that she was going to set a retirement date and stick to it. No more postponements. No more excuses. She was harming the agency with indecision and uncertainty. This will stop! She was to give me a letter with a retirement date signed by her ASAP. She was given 3 days. On the 3rd day I went to her office and picked up the letter. Her last day was the end of the month and when that day came, she was gone. There was much rejoicing in the agency. The staff was thrilled and so was the board. This advice hopefully may be useful for others who find themselves with a seemingly intractible problem.

    Aug 11, 2014

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