Expert Advice

Nonprofit Leadership: Handling an Ineffective Board Chair

| Updated April 3, 2018

Nonprofit board responsibilities — have a 'spineless' board chair?

Nonprofit experts Gary G. Godsey, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, have teamed up to create MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

I'm just going to say it … I have a spineless board chairman who doesn't hold other board members accountable for their behavior. For instance, after the last board meeting, a board member posted a bit of confidential information she overheard at the meeting — on Facebook! I reported the post to the chairman, but he says to just let it go. This kind of thing happens all the time, with him not backing me up as the executive director. How do I say good riddance to this board chair?

Gary says …

You're not alone! Often, people get in leadership roles when they really don't belong there.

Having a spine is a major prerequisite for being a good chair. Clearly, you must find allies on the board who'll do some self-policing. I'd start by outlining your concerns to the executive committee. Perhaps they're observing the same thing and you just haven't heard from them. If you can get agreement, ask the vice chair and other committee members to address these concerns with the chair.

Also check your bylaws for a provision on removal of board officers or members who aren't executing their roles appropriately. These guidelines would be a major help for you as the executive director.

Essential point: You can't "fire" the chair, but the board can! Jump on this now, before things get worse.

Kathryn says …

This might be an excellent time to request a board retreat or special session to review and update existing bylaws and policies (not calling out any problems, just as a good governance practice). These sorts of issues can be discussed at such a forum in a general way — providing you with an appropriate and safe place to express to the group how important these policies are to the health of the organization. You may find other board members agree. You may find the chair "sees the light" and mends his "spineless" ways. Miracles do occur, right?

Sans flying pigs, you may simply have to consider Gary's "nuclear" option. If you have a small organization and a board without committees or vice chairs, approach the board member with whom you have the strongest, most professional relationship. Ask him or her for help.

When you do so, remember to make it about the well-being of the organization, not about you (no matter how frustrated you are). Watch your back. You might find yourself fired if the chair interprets your behavior as insubordinate or undermining. And be nice. No backbiting or negative vibes. After all, you're there for the mission — and so is the chair.

If all else fails, you might simply wait it out. Given time limits on board positions, the chair will eventually be replaced.

Now, your take!

Jon says ... In my experience, disclosure of confidential information is almost always not on purpose. Most board members have never fully read the bylaws, let alone any special policy on social media communication — which is sadly lacking by the vast majority of nonprofits.

My suggestion is that you should consider speaking with a common ally of the board member and yourself. Send a simple email that says, "I'd like to get your opinion on something for 15 minutes." Never put details in email. No matter how well you write, there is always a chance that your tone will be misinterpreted. I know. Just ask my wife!

Another effective method is to have the vice chair (welcome to leadership!) send a brief reminder to all members about the organization's communication policy. But not right away — wait until the situation dies down (time heals frustration), and then the person reading it will know but also be thankful they weren't called out.

Hope this helps!

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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