As a fundraising consultant and speaker, I often have the chance to talk about building a strong non-profit board… one that is enthusiastic about and helpful with fundraising. That’s the way a board should be, and why it is so important to build a culture of philanthropy and staff support on your board of directors.
But what happens when your board isn’t humming along? What happens when your hard-working Development Director dreads going to board meetings, when your board chair calls individual staff members to nitpick decisions, and when your board governs on a whim, constantly ordering the staff to do whatever it is they just read about in the latest issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy?
Hostile board environments are a fact of life at far too many non-profits. I have recently had the chance to work with a number of organizations that were far down the path of board disfunction, and it isn’t a pretty sight. I want to share with you what I have learned in working with these organizations, (and many others over the years).
A hostile board environment is bad for your staff, it’s bad for your board, and perhaps most importantly, it’s incredibly bad for your organization and the people you serve. If you’re worried that you already have a hostile board situation on your hands, here’s what you can do:
Understand the Cause of the Problem
First, its important to be very clear about the cause of the problem. Sometimes, the real problem is just one or two board members. Sometimes, the problem is the entire board, or your organization’s board culture. Solving the problem tends to be easier when it revolves around just one or two board members (unless one of those members is the board chair) and more difficult when the board as a whole is the problem.
Second, it is important for you to know and understand the proper role of the board. In my experience, the vast majority of hostile board environments are caused by board members not understanding and implementing the proper role of the board vis a vis the staff. If you’re going to solve the problem on your board, you (and your team) have to understand the right way to do things.
When it comes to fundraising, the board has four important roles (none of the them are to micromanage the fundraising strategy). To learn those roles, read How to Supercharge Your Nonprofit Board for Fundraising.
Who’s the Expert? It’s You!
If you’re a fundraiser and you feel that your board is overly hostile or is trying to micromanage you, realize that a significant part of the problem is that everyone thinks they know fundraising. Most people feel like fundraising is “not rocket science.” While your board members may hate to fundraise, may never have made an ask, and may shun the actual fundraising process, in many cases they are pretty sure they know more than you about the right way to do it.
Throughout the process of dealing with a hostile board, remember that if you are an experienced fundraiser, you are the expert. I’ve worked with many organizations where the board has mandated a certain fundraising strategy, overruling the fundraising team, and then, when the strategy failed, blamed the fundraisers.
This is one reason why I always recommend that your fundraising team not only puts together a written fundraising plan, but that you also have the board vote to approve the plan. Then, when one or board members asks you to implement a new strategy or tactic, you can point to the board-approved fundraising plan and let the board member know that it doesn’t fit into the current plan, but you will keep it in mind for future plans. It’s not a foolproof strategy, but it can help.
Also, while your board may overrule you, be clear when a strategy is likely to fail. If your board suggests a tactic that won’t work in your situation, be ready to show data and anecdotal evidence for your conclusion, if possible. At the very least, be vocal about the fact that this strategy won’t work for your non-profit. And remember that as you successfully implement your fundraising plan over the coming years, your board will build up more and more trust in your and your team that will help protect you from micromanagement.
Set Reasonable Boundaries
When dealing with a hostile situation on your board, it is important to differentiate between things that are difficult and things that are inappropriate.
As a fundraiser, you are probably used to having a somewhat more pointed relationship with your board than does your program staff. Your board wants to hear the Programs Director tell warm and fuzzy stories about those that have been helped by the organization (and rightly so), but wants to hear from the Development Director why the non-profit hasn’t doubled its fundraising in the past year.
In some ways this is just par for the course for fundraising. Just as with the sales department in a for-profit business, the fundraising team in a non-profit is always being asked to raise more and to do it faster. As fundraisers we need to be ambitious. A little bit of pressure is probably a good thing.
But in many cases, the situation is overly difficult, unreasonable, and antagonistic. In these situations, non-profit fundraisers should try to mitigate the hostility and try to work with the board to move to a more fruitful and positive relationship.
Of course, sometimes the board / staff relationship is just plainly inappropriate. One or more board members may be seriously micromanaging the staff, or berating staff members in public settings (this seems to particularly affect fundraisers), or overworking and underpaying the staff. In these situations, mitigating the hostility is not enough. In these cases, staff members need to find a professional and effective way to curtail the hostile behaviors, not only for their own good, but for the good of the organization.
Seek Help From the Right Sources
Staff members are in a difficult position when it comes to dealing with a hostile board member or a hostile board environment. As an employee of the organization, the board of directors is in a supervisory role, one or more levels above the staff member on the org. chart. For that reason, your first step should be to seek help from the right sources at your organization.
The person who is in the best position to curtail inappropriate or misguided board behaviors is the board chairperson. If the board chair is the problem (or unwilling to help), the governance committee chairperson or the development committee chairperson could be effective sources of help. I have seen several instances where the fundraising team was subject to an unreasonable board environment and the development committee chair stepped in to help correct course.
Of course, your organization’s Executive Director or CEO should be a major ally in your quest to end a hostile board situation. Speak with your ED or CEO to make sure they understand the situation, and to ask for their help in getting it resolved. Good Executive Directors / CEOs stand up for their staff, and in situations where the board chair and committee chairs won’t take action, it is often up to the lead staff member to broker a resolution.
Some non-profits also successfully use outside consultants to assess the board situation and offer a suggested course of action. Sometimes it takes an outside voice to get the board’s attention.
Hone Your Message
Before confronting a hostile board member or board environment, it is important to hone the message that you want to deliver to ensure that it has the best possible chance of being heard. Remember that no matter how hostile a board member may seem, 9 times out of 10 their heart is in the right place. The board member likely thinks that by being highly aggressive or pushing the staff harder, they are helping the non-profit carry out its mission more effectively.
For this reason, the conversations you undertake in order to curtail board hostility should focus on the good of the organization. Discuss how the current board environment is hurting the ability your non-profit to carry out its mission. Show how the time spent dealing with the demands of the board are taking away from the time spent helping those you serve.
As part of your conversations, be sure to reference your non-profit’s board-approved strategic and/or fundraising plans. Is the board (or a certain member of the board) asking you to go outside the scope of those plans or to change the strategy that was laid out in those plans? If so, be sure that there is a discussion of the board and a vote to change the plan that was previously approved. Also make sure that the board understands any of the consequences that will ensue from changing the plan (such as an untested strategy supplanting a strategy that has been working consistently for your organization).
Another tactic that you might find helpful is referring to “best practices” or what has worked for other organizations like yours. This includes any data that you can find to support your suggested course of action, as well as outside books and articles that support your viewpoint. For example, if you have a board member that is berating the staff for not writing more grant proposals, you can reference data, anecdotal evidence, and thought leadership that shows that individual fundraising should have priority over grant fundraising.
Be Up Front, Have a Conversation
Regardless of how you decide to handle a hostile board environment, there’s one piece of advice that holds true: you (and your team) must face the problem head on. Don’t simply bury your head in the sand and hope for the best.
Of course, if your board (or a particular board member) is normally reasonable, but is becoming aggressive or more animated about one particular issue, it may be best just to weather the storm. That’s life… you can’t expect every interaction you have with your board or organizational leadership to be 100% positive. But when a board member or the board as a whole starts to exhibit a consistent pattern of hostility, it’s time to take action.
The best way to deal with hostile board environments is by having direct (but professional) in-person conversations. Speaking with your Executive Director, CEO, Board Chair, or another board member in-person to ask for help is often the best course of action. Likewise, when the time comes for a direct conversation with the offending board member, a personal conversation is often best.
Yes, sometimes it makes sense to put things in writing… but launching your mitigation strategy by sending an e-mail out is generally not the most effective way of dealing with the issue. Don’t let a hostile board environment fester. These conversations are hard, but they are important to have.
Several Options for Action
Every organization is different, and every board situation is different. Your non-profit has several options for dealing with a hostile board member or hostile board. Think through your unique situation to figure out which strategy is right for your organization.
When dealing with an individual board member, your non-profit always has the option of removing the person from the board, or of isolating the board member (not placing them on important committees, not giving them any chance to interact with the staff, etc.) so that they can’t cause any more harm.
Sometimes, the solution for hostile board environments is simply to have a frank discussion with the person who is causing the issue. Other times, you can find an opportunity to explain to the board what the proper roles of the board and staff are, and invite the board to get more involved in their proper roles.
Occasionally, a board retreat will work to calm the situation, with the retreat focused on board development and channeling board action into productive work. As noted above, sometimes bringing in an outside expert or consultant to help address the problem is the correct course of action.
Of course, sometimes there is simply nothing you, as a staff member, can do to alleviate the hostile board environment you face. If you are unable to mitigate the issue on the board, and if your Executive Director / CEO, board chairperson, and others are unable or unwilling to help, you may decide it is time to move on from the organization. The majority of hostile board situations are painful, but fixable. But some aren’t able to be fixed. In these cases, start looking for another job, and leave the organization with your head held high.