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When There’s Beef On Your Nonprofit Board

This season is ripe for conflict. So much is going on in the world outside of the realm of nonprofit board service. Folks are divided on issues of police reform, virtual schooling, left or right politics, diversity-focused-vs-not diverse enough, and whether to mask up in this pandemic or not.

It is no wonder some boards are finding it difficult to be productive due to this bickering, eye-rolling, microaggressions, bias, silence, or absence. Some of us have straight checked out!

This is not the time to cower or take low. Being proactive and diligent is the best way to go! Now more than ever, it is time to check ourselves, and even nonprofit boards. We should dust off those by-laws, pull out the board score card to self-evaluate our performance and bring in outside help to get our houses or in this case, our boards in order.

I have had clients whose boards are micromanaging, undermining their CEOs, attempting to control staff, refusing to fundraise, and/or are resistant to the new imperative to change the composition and culture of their boards.

It has been disheartening!

Let’s get back to square one, shall we?

The Board of Directors is the governing body of a nonprofit. Individuals who sit on a nonprofit board are responsible for overseeing the organization’s activities. Boards are stewards of organizational missions and of the communities they serve. They commit to a Duty of Loyalty which is to put the best interest of the organization first.

I have found myself sharing and repeating this definition of board service to board members who have been serving their organizations for 5, 10, and 20 years or more. When I remind them, that poor behavior is detrimental to the best interest of the organization and consequences to unresolved personal conflict may result in termination of their service, I often get blank stares, stoic expressions, and awkward silence.

Listen, I am aware of the Board Member Bill of Rights. I know what board members should expect from organizations. It is clearly a two-way street. But when conflict is clouding the board’s ability to be productive

and focus on mission, something must change.

So, whose responsibility is it to police the board? This is probably not the best way to phrase it. Board members are not criminals. But they can be uncivil. They can cause harm to the organization and disrupt nonprofit board culture. This usually results in some form of conflict that may see board members running for the hills with their letters of resignation in the wind. While in some cases, this may be a good thing, we don’t want to lose those valuable nonprofit board members who are passionate, active, present, and giving.

While the Governance Committee can and should step in to address these issues, it is ultimately the Board Chair’s responsibility to stop the madness. Here are some handy suggestions for the Board Chair who is faced with a disgruntled board:

  • Face to face communication is widely recommended but in this virtual reality, Zoom or some other online platforms may have to suffice.

  • Plan a special meeting or a series of private meetings, but not a board meeting.

  • Avoid secrecy. Be transparent and inform the entire board and staff that a conflict resolution process is being initiated.

  • Let them know what steps will be taken, who is involved, and what outcomes will be shared with them.

  • Do not take formal minutes at conflict resolution meetings. Ensure that the dialogue is treated as confidential. The outcome, if the parties agree, can be reported. A list of the participants and a written statement or recommendations from the group can be useful.

The Board Chair should refer to the Bylaws to r

eview policies for conflict resolution and/or removing members from the board. Having standards that address these issues in bylaws and other policies will help set a clear path to resolving debates and disputes in a healthy manner.

Boards should set the tone with a culture statement which should be applied to their activities and responsibilities. This statement should be included in the orientation packet to new board members and discussed when onboarding them.

Even when culture statements are created, and sometimes recited at the beginning of each board meeting, conflicts can still arise. Whenever individuals with strong convictions work together there will be difference. It is how we engage and manage those differences that will determine if conflict gets in the way of our collective wisdom, or, enable it to emerge.

Again, when the nonprofit board becomes disabled due to a conflict, it is time to act. Sitting idly by hoping it will go away in time is not a strategy.

When the Board Chair and ED have tried to repair the problem, or if they themselves are part of the conflict, it is wise to call in an outside consultant or mediator to intervene and offer some solutions. This course of action will certainly cost the organization, but in the end, it will be worth it. Professionally trained conflict resolution consultants can be objective and level-

headed while board members are sometimes emotional and irrational.

This all can be exhausting but before you sigh and throw up your hands in exasperation, know that some experts believe that boards who recognize and address conflict show signs of much more efficient governance. They assert that boards that are slow to alleviate conflict show poor governing efficiency. Boards with more instances of cognitive conflict show higher levels of innovation and positivity.

Others still say if we don’t disagree about important things, needed change may not happen. Today, with boards becoming increasingly diverse, and because different people bring different experiences, personalities and values to the table, conflict is bound to occur. This conflict is imperative, and it should be cherished rather than avoided.

See, don’t you feel better? Finding innovative solutions to problems helps to create a path which will lead to a healthier and more productive board environment.

Soooo… having a nonprofit board with beef is good thing! Embrace conflict and serve beef jerky and pop at the next meeting once a culture of discord is replaced with one that has happy, productive, and mission-focused board members. No argument here!

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