Dealing with Challenging Board Members

What is a challenging board member? How do they compare to a difficult staff person? Some of the characteristics are probably pretty similar, right? Here are some of the most common complaints I hear about how board members frustrate agency leadership:

  • They don’t do what they said they would do or what they are supposed to do
  • They say one thing and then do another
  • They drop the ball
  • They don’t show up when expected
  • They fail to communicate effectively
  • They stir up conflict with other board members
  • They harbor hidden agendas
  • They dominate conversations and shut down other view points

Anyone who supervises staff can probably relate to one or more (or all) of these scenarios. In my continued comparison of leading staff and leading boards, today’s article is focused on how to deal with difficult volunteers. 

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Before we delve into how to address performance issues, let’s talk about some prevention strategies. By putting systems in place,  you can often stop problems before they occur. 

I often say that all business is people-business, and even more so when it comes to the nonprofit sector. Everything we do, from the people we serve, to the problems we solve, to the donors and shareholders who support our work – it all boils down to relationships. And you cannot have healthy relationships without clear and consistent communication

When it comes to leading board members (and staff), clear communication and healthy relationships are just the beginning. Afterall, volunteers are there for a reason! Establishing agreed upon expectations and consistently holding people accountable will create the foundation needed to drive the work of your board and your organization forward. It also gives clarity to board members who might not really know what is needed from them. 

It’s Not You, It’s Your Behavior

As with any performance issue – staff or volunteer – it’s important to focus on the behaviors. By valuing the individual and working with them to change counterproductive behaviors, you can avoid hurting feelings and often strengthen valuable relationships. Generally speaking, people are associated with your organization because they care about the cause, and making our world a better place. Sometimes they need help understanding what is helpful and what is not. 


Wouldn’t it be great if by putting expectations and communications systems into place, you were guaranteed smooth sailing? Since we are all human with different life experiences, ideas, passions, and priorities – it’s not always that simple. Sooner or later reality sets in and behaviors emerge that make it difficult to move the work of organization forward. 

When (not if) that happens, I recommend following a  process very similar to how we address performance issues with staff. Ideally this process is led by the Board Chair. If that position is not developed to the point of being able to address performance issues, this may fall on the shoulders of the Executive Director. In that case, another volunteer should be present during the conversation, representing the governance leadership. 

Addressing Board (or staff) Issues

  • Don’t delay – create a plan to address the problem as soon as it becomes apparent
  • Define the problem clearly – “Here’s what I perceive is happening”
  • Identify the effect of the problem – “When you do ______________ , the impact is ______________”
  • Listen to the response – “Tell me your thoughts”
    • Avoid getting sucked into a debate or argument
    • Listen to understand; reflect what you’re hearing or sensing
  • Re-examine expectations – “Our agency’s success requires board members to ______________”
  • Describe the specific corrective action – “Here’s what needs to be done differently”
  • Determine if issues exist that limit the volunteer’s ability to change the behavior – “What challenges remain that we need to address?”
  • Seek feedback – “I want to be sure we’ve communicated effectively, let’s summarize the changes we’ve agreed on”
  • Create mutual agreement for implementation – “How will the change be accomplished?”
  • Identify measurement and follow-up – “How will we know we’re being successful?”
  • Summarize the agreement
  • State the consequences of their not making agreed-upon changes – this is not a threat!
    • It’s stating what the organization needs from its governance volunteers
  • End positively – “When I do ______________ and you do ______________ , I’m sure we’ll be successful”
  • Document – since volunteers transition through roles, future leaders need to know about any issues that have been addressed

I often help organizations to put foundational processes in place and to establish a strong offense against board performance issues. Email me at, or schedule a Discovery Call to discuss creating a Board of Superheroes that will drive your organization’s success! 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofit leaders. 

Board of Directors Evaluation

More and more lately I’ve been asked to conduct board evaluations. This has been a good way to develop a relationship with an organization, and to help them when they know something “just isn’t right.” Oftentimes a nonprofit leader can tell that things are not going the way they want them to, but they just can’t put their finger on the actual problem (or problems). That’s where I come into the picture!

When I start visiting with an agency, I usually begin by asking them a few questions. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get them thinking and moving in the right direction. More often, those questions lead to even more questions, which leads to me coming in to provide a full evaluation. 

The components of a full evaluation can look different from agency to agency, depending on the size, longevity, whether or not they have paid staff, and more. There are several things I look at when evaluating the health and effectiveness of a board. Some include: 

  • The Executive/Board Chair relationship
  • Executive Director’s thoughts on board leadership
  • Board President’s understanding of board leadership
  • Management tools that have been established 
  • Communication systems
  • Official or implied board expectations
  • The board’s effectiveness in carrying out their responsibilities
  • Whether or not the board is fulfilling their duties

Let’s look at each of these aspects of nonprofit leadership.

Executive Director/Board Chair Relationship

Some organizations have the Executive Director report to an Executive Committee, the Human Resources Committee, or even the whole board. Any of those options are fine. The important thing is that there is a healthy, open and honest relationship between the Executive Director and the person or group they report to. 

This relationship is unique to the nonprofit sector and can be tricky. In many organizations the Executive Director drives the work and leadership of the Board of Directors. The tricky part comes up because the board is actually the supervisor of the exec. So the board supervises the individual who informs and guides their work. Even in agencies where the board is largely self-governing, the exec and the board rely on one another to drive their pieces of the organization.

This relationship is key to the success of the nonprofit. It requires mutual respect and an understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities. Clear, open and consistent communication is the foundation to ensuring relationship success. 

Executive Director’s Thoughts on Board Leadership

Whether the exec likes it or not, some portion of their job involves board leadership. Every organization is different and therefore, what each nonprofit needs from their board is different. Since the Executive Director works in the agency every day, she or he is best informed about what the organization needs from its volunteers. The board looks to the exec to shape their work. 

Additionally, no one is born knowing how to be a good board member. Even when someone comes to a board with experience serving on other Boards of Directors, it doesn’t mean they know how best to serve this organization. 

When evaluating this aspect of an agency, I consider whether the exec wants to be completely hands off, or if they are trying to micromanage the volunteers. Either can lead to challenges. Going back to the previous point, we look at the communication that has happened between the board and the exec. Have they addressed what roles each will fill? If not, how does anyone know what they should be focusing their energy on? 

Board President’s Understanding of Board Leadership

What does the board president believe their role is? Are they there to just lead meetings? Should they be driving a set of strategies? Can they address volunteers who are not contributing? Not to sound like a broken record on these first three bullets, but it all comes down to the relationship and communication between the exec and the board. 

Management Tools

In case it hasn’t been clear so far – effective nonprofit leadership boils down to relationships. However, putting tools and processes in place can help ensure that the work that goes into building great relationships is well managed. Pieces that I recommend boards establish include: 

      • Clear board expectations
      • A process for deepening connections
      • System for tracking prospects
      • Clear and thoughtful communication systems
      • A thoughtful and thorough on-boarding process
      • Professional and effective board meetings 

Without some of these basic processes in place agencies often end up spinning their wheels. They have great conversations with no system for following up. They create great connections, but lose track of the individuals. Or they attract really great board or donor prospects, and end up scaring them away by appearing unorganized and unprofessional. 

Communication Systems

I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. A communication system does not need to be elaborate. However, it does need to be thoughtful and intentional. Without a plan, emails can spiral out of control. Pretty soon, no one wants to be associated with the organization because they cannot handle the number of communications they receive. 

Well functioning organizations come to an agreement as a board/staff team about how often they communicate and in what manner. They establish an understanding about etiquette. When there is a real emergency, they can deviate from their plan, otherwise they trust their system and make adjustments as needed. 

Board Expectations

I touched on board expectations under the management tools section. Like communication, this component is so important that I wanted to call it out separately as well. 

No one likes to commit to something if they don’t know what they are getting themselves into, right? This is especially true with joining boards. When a new board member is recruited, there’s a good chance that this is their first experience serving on a Board. It’s an unknown for them. Using Board Expectations as a recruiting tool can answer a ton of questions for them and help them to make a good decision about getting involved. 

Your expectations can be used for evaluating the board’s performance as a whole and as individuals. You can also reference it when dealing with issues of engagement or to raise the bar for the board team. As an organization’s needs change, board expectations are easy to change and update. Expectations should tie directly to what an agency needs its volunteers to be doing in order to advance the cause.

Board Responsibilities

 Every board has three overarching responsibilities. The governance volunteers are responsible for the mission, vision, and strategies. They ensure the organization has the resources (usually people and money) to deliver the mission, vision, and strategies. And they are responsible for making certain that the organization is operating legally and in a fiscally appropriate manner. 

These three functions are consistent across all Boards of Directors. A board evaluation looks at the extent to which the board owns these responsibilities. Sometimes it is a matter of seeing if they even understand that they should be owning them. 

Board Duties

Lastly, I like to review the board’s relationship to the duties of a Board of Directors. Like board responsibilities, duties are the same from one organization to the next. Responsibilities differ from duties in that responsibilities are functions, things the board does. The duties of the board speak more to how the board conducts itself.

Board duties include: Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty and Duty of Obedience. Again, when evaluating an organization, I gauge their understanding of these duties, and their commitment to them. 

Conducting a board evaluation involves interviews with organizational leaders, review of documents, and sometimes attending a board meeting. It concludes with a report to the organization outlining and prioritizing opportunities for improvement. When a nonprofit knows that their board needs work, but they don’t know where to begin, an evaluation is a great place to start! 

Do you know of a Board of Directors that could be stronger, more efficient, or more effective? I’d love to visit with them to see if I can get them moving in the right direction. Email me at, let’s chat!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.

Where to Look for Prospective Board Members

This recent article talked about the purpose of the Board of Directors in a nonprofit organization. Nonprofit Boards are made up of caring citizens who give of their time, talent and treasure to help make our community a better place. These people sound awesome, right? The challenge lies with where to find them. Any organization that hopes to survive and thrive long term, must find individuals willing to serve, bring them together, and form them into an effective governing body. 

Agencies often want to know where they can find these unicorn-like volunteers. While it’s true that it can be challenging to find these people, it’s not impossible. Twenty-five percent of American adults volunteer their time. And I would argue that we can grow that number simply by asking people and connecting them with meaningful opportunities. 

This article will explore three sources for finding volunteers. Before you start recruiting, there are a few things you will want to have in place: 

  • First, you need to be clear on the expectations you will have of your Board members. It’s hard for volunteers to say yes if they don’t know what will be expected of them. 
  • Second, establish a process for recruiting. Bringing on a new Board member should be similar to dating. You would not ask someone to marry you on the first date. Similarly, you don’t want to invite someone to be on your governance Board if you don’t really know them, and they don’t fully understand you and your organization. 
  • Lastly, be prepared to put your volunteers to work. So many agencies have Board members who come to meetings and listen to everything going on in the operations of the organization. This is not a valuable use of their time! It quickly leads to either disengagement or volunteers taking on work that is outside the scope of what the Board should be focusing on. 

Even though you may have work to do in creating your agency expectations, recruiting process, and board focus; now is a great time to start exploring sources for volunteers. Since recruiting should be a process, not an event – you have time to work on those pieces while you identify and build relationships with prospective Board members. 

Board prospects fall into three tiers: 

    1. People who KNOW, LOVE, and TRUST you
    2. Those who care about strengthening the community
    3. Lucky connections

TIER 1: People who KNOW, LOVE, and TRUST you

In order to register for nonprofit status, an agency must list three Board members on the paperwork. The majority of Founders know very little about what it means to have a Board. Because of this, they usually ask three friends or family members to allow them to list their names on the document. Having not been given expectations, properly recruited, or assigned meaningful work this group usually ends up being ineffective. This whole experience leads Founders to be leery of this first category of prospects. 

Despite the tendency to be cautious of Tier 1 prospects, this is the very best place to look for Board volunteers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your mom will make a great Board member. What it does mean is that people who understand your work, who care about your cause because they care about you, and who benefit from or partner to deliver your services – are great prospects.

Friends and family may be good prospects if they are passionate about the mission; not just because they are friends and family. Constituents can be great Board prospects because they know first hand the value of your programs. Partnering or referral agencies may have staff who want to more deeply engage in helping with the critical social issue your agency is addressing. 

Below is a list of places to look for Tier 1 prospects. Consider each group and see if you can think of one or two people in each category who you think might be interested in learning more about your agency. 

      • Friends and family 
      • Social groups
      • Church groups
      • Colleagues
      • Former clients
      • Friends or family of clients
      • Organizations who you partner with or who refer to your agency
      • Businesses the agency patronizes

Tier 2: Those who care about strengthening the community

Tier 2 prospects are those who know little to nothing about your organization. However, they are people who are engaged in their community and who actively seek opportunities to get involved and give back. These individuals are the ones who – once inspired – take action to address the issues in their community. 

You can find Tier 2 folks pretty easily. These are the people who are already involved and working to make the community a better place to live, work and play. Every community has multiple places where Tier 2 people hang out. Some of those include: 

      • Service Clubs – ie: Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions Clubs, Jaycees, etc. 
      • Women’s Clubs – cities and towns of any size have some sort of group like this
      • Networking Groups – some are more philanthropic minded than others
      • Young Professionals Groups – our younger generations are very interested in giving back; in addition they often see volunteering as a way to make a name for themselves
      • Community Foundations – the staff at these organization tend to know who is interested in connecting with certain causes
      • Professional Associations – look to the major industries in your community, their professionals will often come together and be looking to get involved
      • Businesses that have a vested interest in your mission and your success
      • Other Nonprofit Volunteers – this isn’t about stealing volunteers, it’s about helping people deepen their impact in their community 

The people you will find through these avenues are excellent prospects for several reasons. They clearly like to be involved. They are often at a point in their career where they have a little more flexibility and freedom to give their time in the community. And these prospects tend to have more discretionary income and influential connections; both valuable assets to bring onto your Board. 

Scheduling a meeting with your Chamber Director or your Nonprofit Business Librarian can help you determine which groups exist in your community and which would be the best ones to start with. Google can also help you see what’s available in your area. Once you have some sources, reach out to them. Get yourself invited. See if you can speak to their group. Work on nurturing these groups into friends of your organization. The people who show the most interest in your work should be added to your Board prospect list. 

Tier 3: Lucky connections

The third tier of prospects come from broadcasting your needs and seeing who responds. Very good Board members can come out of this category, but it’s more a matter of luck than of strategy. Here are some options for attracting Tier 3 prospects:

      • Online matching sites – Board Source,, BoardnetUSA, Bridgespan,, Volunteer Match, Tap Root, LinkedIn Board Connect
      • Flyers – coffee shops, grocery stores, in-house, library, local gathering spots, businesses that promote employee volunteerism 
      • Social Media – agency’s pages, groups, ads 

Tier 3 is the easiest way to try and attract Board prospects, but also the least effective. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore these options. It simply means that this is where you should spend the least amount of time and resources. 

Recruiting Board members starts with relationship building. It involves doing the hard work of getting out, sharing your passion, and connecting people to your cause. Ensuring that the organization survives and thrives long after the founder has retired requires a strong Board of Directors built on healthy relationships. Use these sources to start building your list of Board prospects. 

If your agency needs help identifying, recruiting and empowering effective Board members, I would love to help! Email me at to learn more. Let’s connect!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.

What is a Nonprofit Anyway?

In my thirty-years of experience leading nonprofit organizations, I have heard a lot of interesting questions. In my early years of nonprofit work, I had similar questions. A recent conversation with a friend made me realize that these questions might be more common than I had realized. So I thought I would share the answers to these three common questions:

What makes a nonprofit a nonprofit?

Who owns a nonprofit?

What’s the point of a Board?

What makes a nonprofit a nonprofit?

On the surface, the word “nonprofit” seems to tell you exactly what it is. However, the name is a bit misleading. Nonprofit organizations can, and often do, produce a profit through their operations. And that is perfectly fine. 

The difference between a nonprofit and a for-profit is that when a for-profit organization makes money, someone or multiple people make a profit. When a nonprofit organization produces a surplus, those funds go back into the organization. The reinvestment can be in the form of equipment, staff training, investments, and more.

Nonprofit organizations exist for purposes other than generating revenue. Their purpose is to address a critical social need and contribute to the greater good of the community, region, world, etc. To be clear, a nonprofit is a business. As such, they must function like one. Nonprofits must pay their bills, follow employment laws, and manage their finances; just like a for-profit. 

Since nonprofits exist to make the world a better place, the IRS rewards them with a tax exempt status. That is the deal that is made when a nonprofit is formed. The organization works to improve the world and the IRS gives them tax relief.

Who owns a nonprofit? 

This is probably the most confusing part of nonprofits for people to grasp. The short answer is that no one owns a nonprofit. Not the founder, not the Executive Director, and no one on the Board. 

That being said, it’s okay to think of the community, or the constituents served by the organization, as the “owners”. These are the people the organization benefits. Not through profit, rather with programs, services, and products. 

An organization that works to reduce poverty serves the whole community. The community can be considered the “owners” of that agency. A nonprofit that provides hygiene products to girls in third world countries, serves a smaller subset of the community, their constituents are the girls they support. Those girls could be considered the “owners”. 

A for-profit business is led by the owner(s). That is who makes decisions about how the business is run. However, an organization cannot possibly be led by an entire community. Same goes for girls on the other side of the world, it’s not feasible for them to provide organizational oversight. So that’s where the Board comes in!

What’s the point of a Board?

Since an entire community or constituency cannot lead an organization, a Board of Directors exists to represent the community/constituency. The Board is a select group of volunteers – always volunteers. Their role is to lead and make decisions in the best interest of the constituents. 

The Board of Directors is responsible for setting the mission, vision and strategic direction. Simply put, these are the promises the agency makes to their constituents. It’s the Board’s role to ensure that the organization has the human and financial resources needed to fulfill the promises made. Additionally, the Board ensures the organization meets all of their fiscal and legal requirements. 

Founders and Executive Directors can sometimes question the need for Board members. They often minimize the importance or the value of a Board. Sometimes engaging volunteers in the leadership of the organization can seem like just one more thing on a long list of expectations. I’m here to tell you, not only is a Board required, it may be the most important component of a nonprofit organization. 

A Board of Directors engages regular people in the community and activates them to make their world a better place. And really, that’s the point. In addition to engaging Board volunteers, best practices drive the Board to engage even more people with their cause through storytelling, fundraising, events, committees, volunteerism, and sponsorships. A crucial and valuable role of nonprofits is to activate community members in the work of making their community great.

Are you looking to get engaged in your community? I know a LOT of nonprofit organizations and could help you get connected and involved with a cause you are passionate about. Want to explore how to create an effective and impactful Board of Directors? I would love to help! Email me at to learn more. Let’s connect!

Kim Stewart

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses. 

Board Volunteers:

Culture matters

10 Signs You Might Be Leading a Toxic Organization

I’m targeting nonprofit Board Volunteers with this article. However, anyone can read it. I’m really not that controlling. The “10 Signs” are good for anyone in a business or nonprofit to understand and be able to identify. They are also helpful if you are considering joining a Board. 

As a Board Volunteer, you have many responsibilities to the agency you are leading. One factor frequently overlooked is your role in culture and organizational effectiveness. This is often left to the Executive or CEO. When the leader creates a positive, functional environment, there isn’t a need for the Board to give it any attention. Problems arise when the Exec or CEO has not created a positive culture and dysfunction begins to take over. 

It can be difficult for volunteers to know when things are “off.” The Executive Director or CEO may be unaware of the toxic environment they have created. Or, if they are aware, they certainly are not going to tell the Board of Directors about it. That’s why it’s important to understand what to look for. As you read this list, note which indicators sound familiar.

10 Signs of a Toxic Organization

#1 Poor Staff Retention

Staff are leaving. A lot. They may say it’s for one reason or another, but we all know that staff do not leave jobs, they leave managers. It’s also a bad sign if there are constant layoffs or firings. This indicates the lack of a strategic plan or vision. 

#2  Morale is Low

There is a lack of motivation. Staff are just “punching the clock”. This is especially disappointing in the nonprofit sector. Staff are drawn to an organization’s mission or cause. When there is poor leadership or a toxic environment, even the most passionate employee becomes dispirited. Additionally, while not the cause, low morale is often exasperated by years with no staff raises.

#3  Poor Communication

There are constant changes in communication, or it’s unnecessarily vague. Staff are confused. Often leaders will “talk out of both sides of their mouths”. For example, in one breath they tell you how great everything is, and in the next one they tell you how they need you to raise more money because of the desperate state of the agency.

#4  Cliques, Exclusions, and Gossipy Behavior

It seems like there’s an “in” group and an “out” group. There is an emphasis on who is considered important in the organization vs. who is not. Staff are talked about in a negative and unprofessional way. Private conversations become known by everyone.

#5  Supervisors are Ill Prepared to Do Their Job 

Any boss who uses tactics such as intimidation, humiliation, playing favorites, false promises, micromanaging, not communicating, unsupportive behavior, or any of the many other outdated and authoritarian methods, should not be allowed to lead people. Supervising staff is a skill and it needs to be developed and nurtured, like any other skill. You can read more about this topic here and here

#6  There is No Work-Life Balance

Sometimes staff have to put in long hours, including evenings and weekends. This is common in the nonprofit sector. Especially when delivering programs or events. However, when this is the constant, normal expectation, it’s unhealthy for the employees and for the organization.

#7  Constant Drama

There’s always an issue or crisis to solve. Problem solving is inconsistent and may seem random. What could be minor disagreements escalate and are blown out of proportion. Relationship issues are not managed professionally.

#8  Dysfunction Reigns 

There’s a lack of trust among staff and an avoidance of accountability. Decisions are not made based on what is best for the organization. They revolve around benefiting a few individuals. Transparency is lacking. Often despite the leader believing they are being very transparent.

#9  Staff are “Kept In Their Place” 

As a volunteer you may have limited contact with anyone other than the leader(s). Interactions between Volunteers and Staff are controlled or non-existent. Staff have very little authority.

#10  The Organization Lacks Mission, Vision, and Values

This is not to say that these statements aren’t written down somewhere. This means that they are absent from decision making, strategic discussions, and staffing practices. 

These three elements should drive the work of the organization and should be present at every meeting and in every key discussion. They need to be more than words on a wall. They need to carry the organization forward and serve as the compass for the work you do. 

If any of this resonates with you, I suggest you share these “10 Signs” with your fellow Board Members. Here’s a pretty version you can print and share. Ask around to find out if anyone else sees reason to be concerned. If so, it is your duty to take action. You owe it to the organization you are serving. The community and your constituents deserve the best possible version of your agency. Help make sure they are getting it.

Need help evaluating your organization’s culture? Or do you already know you have issues to address. Email me at to schedule a free 30-minute consultation to discuss how I can help you create a culture that will grow your organization and increase your impact! 

Kim is a mom, wife, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of small businesses and nonprofits.