A Board Member Crosses the Line

Dear Blue Avocado: I'm the chair of a nonprofit board and I have a problem. We recently voted to support a local measure that would change some zoning regulations in our county. This board member -- I'll call him "Joe" -- was outvoted (he was the only one to vote against it). The staff wrote up our position and put it on our website. Now Joe won't stop emailing the staff and telling them to change a sentence or add something or even to take it down. The staff is spending hours talking with him on the phone about it. What do I do?

Dear Board Chair:

You already know that you have to stop his behavior. The question is how.

You need to send two clear messages: one to Joe and one to the staff. In a phone call followed up with an email, let Joe know the following:

  • Individual board members can make suggestions to the executive director, but they can't direct staff work. The board -- acting as a whole -- can direct staff work, but not individual board members.
  • If Joe would like the content of something on the website reviewed by the board for appropriateness, you would be willing to bring the matter to the next board meeting.
  • You have instructed the executive director to let the staff know they are to refer any requests by board members to me, the board chair.
  • Let Joe know that you and other board members value his participation (if that's true), but that, in this instance, he is acting as if he were representing the full board, not just himself. Add that if he disagrees with the decision of the board, he can ask that it be brought up again at the next board meeting. However, majority rules.
  • In a phone call or email with the executive director, be sure the following points are clear:
    ** Tell staff that if individual board members --- not only Joe -- ask them to undertake work, staff should say that they have been instructed to refer such requests to the board chair. Staff cannot be expected to take direction from individual board members; chaos would result.
    ** If Joe asks you -- the executive director -- to undertake particular tasks -- remind him gently that you report to the board, not to each individual board member. You can suggest that either he or you ask me to have the item placed on the board agenda.

But what if Joe says, "I'm not acting as a board member! I'm acting as a concerned citizen of this county"? You probably know how to respond: we welcome comments from all concerned citizens, and such comments should and will be brought to our board where the decision was made.

Having these conversations with Joe won't be easy or fun. You may be thinking something like, "I didn't volunteer to be on this board to have people acting out on me!" But that's what leadership is: responding appropriately to whatever comes up and using the moment to set a tone of respect, integrity, and accountability. Go for it.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Jan Masaoka is the publisher of Blue Avocado and the author of Best of the Board Cafe Second Edition, which compiles dozens of short, practical articles about boards -- grounded in an unconventional framework. She has been in the shoes of both this board member and a board member acting out, she's sorry to say.

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Comments

As a former board chair, this sounds very familiar. The board member has overstepped the bounds, and will continue to do so until he is stopped, cold. Once a board member, or two or three, think that they can contact staff, and get them to follow their direction, chaos results. Stop it now, and don't be held hostage to one board member's need for micro managing control.

Sadly, the problem of a board member crossing the line is so common, yet it is rarely addressed by board chairs. Similary, staff who approach individual board members with negative comments create a similar chaos. When the board chair expects others to "dust around" these types of issues or believes the issues will simply go away, then the work of the nonoprofit is jeopardized. When boundary issues are left unaddressed, low morale and negativity often occur with board and staff. Eventually, that will be followed by painful, unnecessary chaos.

In turn, this type of dynamic also contributes to the high-turnover rate of Executive Directors and/or to the average years of service in each position. Ultimately, this is a problem that requires collective problem-solving. Worst of all, donor dollars are being miss-spent on unnecessary churn (staff and directors) and dysfunctional problem-solving.

It has been my understanding that the Board manages the Executive Director and the Executive Director manages the day-to-day operations including the management of staff. Therefore, it seems appropriate to have the Executive Director inform the staff to forward any request by individual Board members to her/him, the Executive (third bullet in the article).

It also would seem more appropriate to send the two messages to Joe and the Executive Director...not the Board chair. The Executive Director relays the direction to the staff.

I agree, wholeheartedly. Once the door is open between staff and board, it's difficult to close. Not only will board members interfere with the ED's ability to manage staff and daily operations, but the staff will begin to bring their complaints and requests to the board, rather than the ED, who can actually address them. This undermines the lines of authority and, in my own experience, the ED will vacate the job within just a few months. In order to further the mission of the organization, the lines of authority must be respected and enforced. Finding and installing a new ED into a "toxic" environment is time consuming and takes away the focus of the organization as the new ED tries to heal the damage.

Yes, this is exactly what happened to me. I leave in two weeks, after 2 years of trying to deal with it. Damn that great 7-week vacation I took in 2010. By the time I got back, one staff member had "crossed the line" with the Board and took everyone else with her. The "blame" for the ensuing chaos has been put at my feet.

The column contains excellent advice. I'd also suggest the chair consider sending Joe on a nonprofit governance workshop and/or bringing in a governance trainer to refresh everyone's knowledge of wise practices in governance, and alert them to emerging trends. Joe is not just causing trouble; he is also trying to micro-manage operational work. Is he the only one on the board doing that, or just the only annoying one?

In the interim, the approach has to include a recognition that often board members need to contact specific staff in relation to their officer or committee roles. A Treasurer or Audit Chair with a question for the CFO shouldn't have access cut off because of Joe! The Executive Director should have a complete list of which staff have been designated to act as resources to specific officers and board committees. These should be exceptions to the general approach, since they can ask staff to do certain work such as circulate a committee meeting agenda or meet with them about audit results.

Added to that, in many organizations board members also serve as direct service volunteers and on operational committees and task forces. The governance session should clarify, if need be, that board members have zero authority while serving as willing hands to get operational work done.

Overall, make sure the solution with Joe has a net positive effect! In this case, that has to include Joe accepting the majority decision or leaving the board.

I agree. This is all too familiar and that is why, in addtion to taking the steps presented, I recommend the inclusion of "Communications Policy(ies)" in board members' handbooks/guidelines. These types of policies can include board to board communication; board to staff communications; the organization's communications to the media and public; and social media policies that align with those in the organization's human reources policies. I also encourage boards to provide an overview on all board policies as part of its new board member orientation and to make sure that there is at least a brief discussion about the implications and impact of new policies will have at the time they are adopted. Jennifer M. Rutledge Delphi Consulting Group, Inc.

I would suggest referring back to the organization’s mission. Presumably the local measure is relevant to the organization’s work, so ultimately, the question becomes “does the decision of the Board, and thereby the position of the organization, support the mission?” So long as the decision supports the mission, there should be little or no question about the appropriateness of that decision. Acknowledge Joe’s personal position and his reasoning, but respectfully remind him that as Board members, you are called to make collective decisions on behalf of and in the best interest of the organization. Additionally, it is important to remember the value that “Joe” brings to the table; what skills and experiences brought him to the table in the first place? By acknowledging and affirming Joe’s perspectives as well as expressing appreciation and gratitude for his contributions, he will likely feel more respected and valued, and less apt to cause waves by micromanaging. Finally, celebrate the diversity of perspectives on your Board and the fact that “Joe” cares enough to engage! Healthy ascension in the board room can lead to informed decision making and enables the Board to be a body for robust discussion and deliberating.

My Board members don't believe crossing the line is a problem. They believe in lifetime tenure (no limits to terms) on the basis that no-one seems willing to join the board (hello, are they listening?). I have battled it long enough and will be leaving the best job I've ever had in 2 weeks' time. At least the organisation itself is robust enough to survive.

Hi,

What if the person that is micromanaging is the founding board president and other board members are intimidated my the president. It is harming the board process and decision making. It is also confusing for staff.

Great advice!

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