“We need to talk”: How to Break Up (or Make Up) with Board Members

Editor’s note: Need help with your board? Check out these free webinar recordings from of our recent Virtual Conference: Learn to Love Your Board.

Break ups are awkward, painful, and uncomfortable. Whether it’s a professional partnership or a personal or romantic relationship, it’s never easy to part ways. This is also true when it comes to “breaking up” with your board members. Have you been in this position before? Are you in it right now? Maybe you’re thinking, “My board member is giving his or her time (and in most cases, money). I couldn’t possibly ask him/her to leave. I’m just so thankful he or she is involved.”

Yes, your board members are volunteers, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t hold them to certain expectations. So, what do you do when you have a board member who isn’t performing up to their fullest potential? Here’s a roadmap to help you navigate this complex situation:

First, consider what a board member thinks his or her job is. Does the board have a clear job descriptions? Did you have conversations with each board member about their specific roles and responsibilities? If not, consider re-setting expectations as your next step. Review the board’s job description with your governance committee. If it’s missing any mention of fundraising or giving as a duty, suggest language that clearly states the type of gift you would like each board member to commit as well as the fundraising activities you are asking them to do. Then, develop a system to track and hold them accountable for these obligations.

At a recent AFP conference, one presenter shared a report card that her organization uses with its board. It is shared privately at each board meeting and gives a “grade” for each board member’s specific duties during the fiscal year. It’s a really great tool for motivating board members and increasing their accountability.

If the job duties are clear, this is probably a matter of your board member over-promising and under delivering. That means, it’s time for some tough love. Take a deep breath, exhale, and go with me on this one.

Set some time to meet one-on-one with the under-performing board member. If you’d like to bring your board chair, that’s fine. Start the conversation with a sincere thank you for his or her service. Acknowledge that you understand that board leadership is a significant commitment of time and resources, and you appreciate his or her willingness to be involved.

Then, share the job description and walk through the key role you need the board to play in governing and leading your organization. Point out the specific area where the board member hasn’t been meeting expectations and ask him or her if there are things you as staff could do to make his/her job easier. This is the point where you just stop and listen. How does the board member react? What does he or she say regarding his or her performance?

Use your best judgment and determine if things will change after this conversation. Do you envision this board member making this position a greater priority, or is he or she the type that just can’t fit this commitment in his or her life now?

If you think things will change, agree with the board member on next steps. If it’s the latter, you may consider saying something like, “It sounds like you have a lot of demands on your time, and this role may not be the best fit for you now. We need to the fullest commitment of each member to lead, govern, and advocate for our work, and we understand if you are unable to fit this into your other demands.”  Then, you may offer other ways for him or her to still stay involved, like serving on a committee, or as an honorary member in some way.

There’s no easy way around this conversation. But it’s an important one. I think you’ll find it will make it easier for a board member to step down gracefully.

Click here to download the recordings from our recent Virtual Conference: Learn to Love Your Board.

Guest Author: Barbara O’Reilly, CFRE

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