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Dealing With A Tough Board Member

Clint Maun, CSP

While board members of an organization will find exciting opportunities such as fostering growth, helping ensure the organization’s success, and being purposefully involved, they may also encounter significant challenges.

One of those challenges, with which many of you may be familiar, is dealing with the tough board member. You know the tough board member. The one that is oppositional, contrarian, over-detailed, sticking his or her nose into operational matters, fueling rumors and gossip, lamenting that things are not as they used to be, being over-involved in side circles before or after board meetings, dealing with issues that are beyond the scope of the board, spending time on useless pontifications, coming late to board meeting and then wanting to go back over items already discussed, or—one of my favorites—missing several meetings and then wanting to hold court on what has already been decided.

How does a board go about dealing with such a member of the group? First of all, the board should set ground rules that define what is and is not acceptable regarding meetings, members’ roles and responsibilities, and the function of the board as a whole. Board members must be “oriented to the organization, including the organization’s mission, bylaws, policies, and programs, as well as their roles and responsibilities as board members.” (McNamara) To help accomplish this, job descriptions for all board positions and committees are a must. The specifics for each role needs to include even the bare essentials such as showing up on time, bringing the appropriate materials, getting the work done and so on.

We also believe it’s important for the board to define the WIIFM—“What’s In It For Me”—for the board members. “Those most qualified to serve as guardians will need to ask a simple question: ‘Is it worth it?’” (Longnecker) What does a person require in return for serving on the board? The board chairperson needs to address specifics with potential members before they agree to serve on the board. “What is it that you need from us if you are to be a successful member of this board?” “Do you need public recognition?” “Is it important for your boss to know that you’re on this team?” “Are you seeking contacts that would be good for you, personally or professionally?” The board chair and key leaders of sub-teams then must see to it that board members receive the rewards and recognition they have been promised for successfully fulfilling the jobs they agreed to complete.

We suggest that this information be put into a one- or two-page relationship document, defining the board member’s roles, responsibilities, rights, and rewards. All specifics should be thoroughly discussed before the person accepts the board position. The document should then be signed and dated by both the board chair and the new board member. If the new member subsequently evolves into one of those “tough” guys, the board has the right—as well as the responsibility—to say something. “Look, you’re falling short of your job description. You’re not doing what you said you were going to do, and I’m not sure we can help you with the rewards and recognition that was agreed upon as long as your end of the bargain isn’t being met.”

While removal of a board member is a rare occurrence, organizations should provide for such an instance, preferably in their by-laws. Removal is most often accomplished through term limits, personal contact, or impeachment. (Board Café) Personal contact is often the most effective approach and should be tried long before impeachment becomes the only viable course of action. In that personal contact, the suggestion of resignation from the board as an appropriate alternative may be in order. Sometimes “problem board members are relieved to have this as an option.” (Board Café)

Closely related to defining individual roles and responsibilities and establishing ground rules for board members is the issue of evaluating board performance as a whole. Do we stay on time? Does everyone participate and provide input? Is anyone out of bounds? Are we accomplishing what we need to accomplish?

In a nutshell, the board, as a team, needs to police itself, not waiting for situations to get out of hand or always letting the chairperson take initiative on everything. If the board has clear job descriptions and defined roles, responsibilities and rewards, it can act as a team and also allow individual board members to take initiative when problems arise. Those problems, then, tend not to get out of control before action is taken. Providing all board members with defined roles and expectations, clear job descriptions, and detailed responsibilities and rewards produces the most effective way for a board to professionalize itself and, in the process, to keep tough board members from becoming tougher.

Works Cited

Board Café: “Removing a Difficult Board Member.” Compasspoint Nonprofit Services. October 1999. April 2006. <http://www.compasspoint.org/boardcafe>


Longnecker, Brent M. “Weed Out Bad Board Members.” Workforce Management. November 2002. April 2006. articles_authored_2>


McNamara, Carter, MBA, PhD, ed. “Checklist to Evaluate a Nonprofit Board of Directors.” Management Help. United Way of Minneapolis.