How to Fire a Board Member
In 2015, Ostrich Place invested heavily in board development after determining that the board was largely disengaged board. Before the board development project began, the board struggled to achieve quorum, did not have functioning committees, and rarely met the requirements established in the by-laws.
During the past three years, they have developed reasonable expectations for board service, created a robust recruitment process, implemented an effective orientation, and supported board members in meeting their obligations as board members.
The most recent recruitment process had 11 prospective candidates apply for 6 open positions. For the first time in years, the board could be very selective about those it appointed to the board, and Ostrich Place used this opportunity to thoroughly assess candidates and obtain references from prior volunteer experiences.
As the freshman class of board members began the orientation process, Ted emerged as an outspoken leader. He would often share his strong opinions and insist that the board procedures were wrong. When orientation ended three months later, Ted’s participation in meetings was clearly disruptive. Nearly every time Ted spoke, people rolled their eyes knowing that he was about to:
The board chair and governance committee became aware that Ted was disruptive when not in meetings. Specifically, Ted would show up at the Ostrich Place unannounced, inspect the facility, and demand to see the executive director to grill her and review his “findings”. The program officer at a local foundation also contacted the board chair about some “disturbing news” they heard from Ted.
Since Ted’s first orientation session, the governance committee has attempted to manage and modify Ted’s behavior. A few of their actions included:
The governance committee met to discuss Ted’s behavior one final time. They agreed that, while every board needs a devil’s advocate, Ted’s conduct moved beyond offering an opposing viewpoint in a healthy manner. He was a bomb thrower who enjoyed wreaking havoc in an organization. He was also disloyal to the organization by approaching external stakeholders (like funders) without using appropriate board channels for reviewing issues that troubled him.
They determined that Ted’s service as a board member needed to end, and they discussed various options for firing him. With their by-laws in front of them, they considered the following options:
#1: Don’t offer the board member an additional term. When Ostrich Place first began its board development project in 2015, they often used this technique for long-tenured board members who were not meeting the new attendance requirements. The Nominating Committee would review each board member’s attendance, committee participation, personal giving, and fundraising from the prior year, and they would not offer renewals to board members failing to meeting the expectations. Since Ted still had 21 months left in his term, this was not a viable option. 21 more months of Ted would have driven away most of the productive board members.
#2: Ask the board member to recommit or recuse. The governance committee used this technique extensively when implementing the new board expectations in 2015. Once the board agreed on the expectations, the governance chair met with under-performing board members individually and asked them to recommit to the new expectations, while also giving them the opportunity to recuse themselves from board service without any hard feelings. The governance committee did not choose this option because they had already asked Ted to recommit to more appropriate behavior or leave the board.
#3: Leave of absence. Last year, a board member’s performance went from “stellar” to “cellar,” and a governance committee member asked the board member if everything was okay. Board members usually know when they are underperforming or engaging in counterproductive behavior, and they will usually explain that work or family has demanded more of their time and emotional energy. Ostrich Place Board offered this underperforming board member a three-month leave of absence, during which time she was not responsible for attending meetings, participating in committees, or other board-related duties. At the end of the 3-month leave of absence, she decided that her family issues would not allow her to continue and resigned from the board. Since she made the decision to resign (instead of being asked to resign or being terminated), Ostrich Place continues to be her favorite charity. Based on Ted’s history, however, the governance committee decided this option was not feasible for him.
#4: The Legal Route. The governance committee ultimately decided that the only effective option was to recommend terminating Ted’s board membership using the process outlined in the by-laws. They fully understood that this is the most painful option – for the board, for the organization, and for Ted. But they also felt that Ted would continue to speak poorly of the organization even if he remained on the board. In consultation with a pro bono attorney, they outlined the ways in which Ted had violated his duties as a board member and prepared a formal termination recommendation for the board. The governance committee informed Ted that it recommended termination and called a board executive session to deliberate and vote. The executive session had only one agenda item, and the governance committee structured the meeting to efficiently consider and vote on the motion. At the session, the governance committee briefly spent five minutes to present its findings about, and Ted was given fifteen minutes to add any information he wanted. The board then invited Ted to leave the meeting, letting him know that a board member would contact him tomorrow to share the outcome of the vote. The board unanimously voted to remove Ted. The following day, the governance committee chair invited Ted to meet for coffee, but Ted refused. Ted wanted to receive the decision immediately, and the chair informed Ted that the board had voted to remove him from effective immediately. The chair started to thank Ted for his service and express regret that the situation did not work out when Ted hung up on her. Following the phone call, the chair mailed a letter to Ted informing him of the board’s decision.
This is an “extreme case” where Ted was a pariah who threatened to destroy the board and the organization. Some organizations have less extreme cases where a board member just isn’t a good fit or not meeting expectations. In my experience, the best course of option for those cases includes #2 (ask the board member to recommit or recuse) or #3 (leave of absence). Each of these starts with a conversation, and it’s important to be empathic and caring throughout the conversation. A good structure for the conversation might be:
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Only the Board Can Hold the Board Accountable
Board service is all about accountability. After all, boards are responsible for holding the CEO accountable; boards are accountable to the organization’s constituencies and to governmental regulations.
Yet the board also has a primary responsibility to hold itself accountable. Other than the rare and infrequent attorney general investigation, there are few outside entities that can hold the board accountable. And no staff member – not even the CEO – can hold the board accountable for meeting its obligations and complying with government regulations.
Boards may side-step holding themselves accountable in two ways. To illustrate these distinct accountability avoidance techniques, let’s use the example of a fictitious board member James. He has served on the board for two years and never completed the annual conflict of interest disclosure document. In January of each year, the board chair distributes the document at each meeting and actually follows up with absent board members by emailing the document to them. Staff are responsible for collecting the completed form from each board members and giving the governance committee a report of submitted documents in the February committee meeting.
#1: A board chooses not to follow-up with board members who fail to follow board policy. At its February meeting, Governance Committee members review the staff report on submitted conflict of interest (COI) statements. At this point, the committee becomes aware that James has not completed his COI disclosure document. The committee discusses the reasons why James may not have turned it in with remarks like
Yet no governance committee member is assigned to follow-up with James to ask why the form wasn’t submitted and set a firm deadline. In the rare instance that the board does speak with James about his COI and set a deadline, it is almost guaranteed that he can serve the remainder of his term without ever submitting the document.
#2: A board delegates its accountability role to staff. After learning that James has not completed his COI and discussing the matter briefly, the committee asks the executive director to follow-up with James. Now the executive director is in the awkward position of holding someone accountable when that person has power over her performance review, potential salary increases, or even whether she keeps her job. The executive director can cajole, remind, and request – but the executive director can never effectively hold a board member accountable. This is so important that it bears repeating “The executive director can never effectively hold a board member accountable.”
These avoidance techniques are common even among governance committees that have business executives known for making tough decisions in their professional lives. While people may join a board with a passion for the organization, almost no one joins a board wanting to be “the bad cop”. And they definitely don’t want to be “the bad cop” with another volunteer. It’s uncomfortable, and many feel that it will drive away current and prospective board members.
So what is the solution?
Just being clear about responsibilities and setting an example, however, will not be enough. The organization will also need to recruit one committee member who relishes being the traffic cop – who is willing to say “that person ran a red light and it’s not acceptable”. Ideally this is a diplomatic person who can also have a few difficult conversations without creating too much drama. This may be the member’s primary contribution to the governance committee, but it is a valuable one.
The Three I’s of Board Orientation
Sal had always been a dedicated donor and volunteer of his local community center, and he felt honored when asked to join the board. About a month after being appointed to the board, he came to the Saturday board orientation with a lot of enthusiasm for the center.
Over the next four hours, the board chair and executive director oriented Sal and the other new board members. Reading from power point presentations not changed in several years, they flooded new board members with detailed information:
After the first 75 minutes, Sal was no longer able to retain the information presented, and he began to feel more lethargic than enthusiastic in the final hours. By the end of the orientation, he felt like a glass of water that someone tried to fill with a fire hose.
The board orientation that Sal endured at the community center is often called a “fire hose orientation.” The fire hose orientation provides too much information in only one session and does not use experiential learning activities. Essentially, the new board member is seated in a room and subjected to a torrent of information. Even on the rare occasions that this orientation effectively informs new board members, it almost always fails to initiate and inspire them.
To ensure your new recruits become high-performing board members, every board orientation should Inform, Initiate, and Inspire. Together, they form the “Three I’s of Board Orientation.”
Board orientation activities must provide the information necessary for board members to do their volunteer job. This includes understanding the governing documents, programs, financials, organizational history, and board operations. The vast majority of board orientations inform board members, though splitting these topics into manageable 60 – 90 minute sessions would be helpful for retention.
While a few frat boys have given initiation a bad name, we should embrace the initiation aspects of orientation. During a board member’s first few months, they should receive support in doing the activities required of all board members. This may include making their first donation, liking the agency’s social media pages, completing required documents, representing the organization at an event, attending their first committee meeting, etc. As part of initiation, the organization can provide a list of all activities necessary to complete orientation, provide an experienced board member as a mentor and celebrate completion of the orientation process.
By the end of the orientation period, new board members should be even more enthusiastic about the organization and its mission. For this reason, orientation activities should inspire new board members to excel as governors, ambassadors, and cheerleaders. Activities that help inspire new board members include meeting former clients, shadowing program staff, touring the facility during operating hours, and leading a project for a volunteer group. While doing every one of these activities would be too much for a single board member, you can offer a variety of inspirational experiences for new board members can select from as part of their orientation.
The bigger picture
By designing an orientation process that Initiates, Informs, and Inspires board members, your organization will benefit from a more engaged, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic board. Of course, a successful board orientation also requires a robust and careful recruitment process, as well as a system for ongoing board member evaluation.
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A Survival Guide to Getting Written Up
Over the past several months, Sam’s coworkers and supervisor have noticed that he’s been missing deadlines and his work includes careless mistakes. Alex, Sam’s supervisor, has counseled him informally in their regularly scheduled check-in sessions, and Sam typically responds that he’s doing the best he can but will try harder. On a few occasions, Alex has asked if there is any additional support Sam needs to meet the demands of his job.
Eventually, Sam’s poor performance increases his colleagues’ workload and begins to impact the morale of Alex’s entire team. With few other options left, Alex presents Sam with a formal written warning and a performance improvement plan (PIP).
How Sam reacts to the written warning and PIP will likely determine whether Sam becomes a productive team member or joins the unemployment rolls.
As a manager for over 20 years, I’ve had the unenviable task of writing up staff members. I’ve seen employees who respond in a positive manner that results in succeeding in their current position - - - and even getting promotions. And I’ve seen employees respond in counter-productive ways that fast-track them toward termination.
Here’s some thoughts and advice from an experienced manager about being written up:
It’s possible to come back from a written warning and become a high-performing team member with a bright future. But it requires having a positive attitude, a willingness to accept responsibility, and a genuine desire to change.
Disclaimer: The author is not a lawyer and is not providing legal advice. It is always important to know your rights, and you should consult an attorney if you want legal counsel on a written warning or performance improvement plan. Also consult an attorney if you feel you are being discriminated against or treated unfairly in any way.
This is the second part of the post on outsourcing. Part one includes the 4 types of tasks nonprofits outsource and the 5 key benefits of outsourcing them, you can read that post here.
Questions to Ask When Outsourcing
Successfully outsourcing a few core business functions requires that a nonprofit carefully determine its own needs and the contractor’s capacities. You will likely solicit proposals from prospective vendors and conduct a rigorous vetting process.
When you meet with prospective contractors, a few questions to ask in this process include:
Will we pay a flat amount each month or by the hour?
Paying a flat amount each month helps with budgeting and often with cash flow, but it also limits the additional tasks you can ask a contractor to perform without having to renegotiate a contract.
What is the specific scope of services?
A clearly outlined scope of services will eliminate the possibility of many future disagreements. If a prospective contractor says “I will manage all of your grant writing”, ask for clarity on what tasks are involved. Does this include the grant calendar? Attending RFP conferences? Writing the proposal? Assembling the final proposal? Sending the proposal to the funder? Writing thank you letters? Tracking funder deadlines? Writing grant reports? Etc.
Who else have you done this work for?
It’s best to find a consultant or contractor with more than just nonprofit experience but experience within the organization’s field. As part of this question, be certain to obtain and check references.
What relationships will you bring to our organization?
Each contractor is an opportunity to expand your organization’s relationships with funders, vendors, constituents, and even other organizations. Ask who they may know and how you can leverage the relationship.
What happens when you . . .
Take a vacation? Retire? Experience a significant demand for work? Specifically, the nonprofit needs to feel comfortable that they will have continuity and consistency. Often a firm can provide this level of continuity but a sole practitioner with a strong network can provide a similar assurance of continuity.
What steps do you take to meet the legal definition of a 1099 contractor? *
The Federal Department of Labor and many state departments of labor have been cracking down on employers that incorrectly classify individuals as contractors. While this article isn’t designed to offer legal or accounting advice, be certain that the firm or contractor meets the legal definition of a contractor, and ask a pro bono attorney who specializes in employment law to review the contract and verify that it meets the criteria.
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Elephants In Hiding
Going on Safari in Africa is an amazing experience because you get to see animals outside of a traditional zoo setting. You can see prides of lions enjoying a nap, troops of hippopotamus wallowing in muddy water, and herds of elephants.
On my first safari, I was surprised how often elephants hide. These are big animals – typically weighing over 13,000 pounds and standing over 10 feet tall. They are the “gentle giants of the jungle” with no real predators, but they often prefer the comfort of not being fully visible.
I snapped this one photo of a hidden elephant:
And I thought about the hidden elephants in the organizations I have worked with. Sometimes, the hidden elephant is the staff, board member, or volunteer who does amazing work but never seeks accolades or recognition. They work quietly and relatively obscurely - - - and they are the unsung heroes of the nonprofit sector.
Who are some of the hidden elephants in your organization, and how can you recognize them?
Of course, organizations also have “bad elephants” hiding as well. In order to sustain themselves, elephants eat 2000% of their weight every year (that’s over 120,000 pounds of foliage every year). Consequently, they can easily turn savannas into grasslands, cause erosion, and harm biodiversity.
Most organizations also have these hidden “bad elephants”. People who are often unintentionally but quietly doing a lot of damage. Perhaps the person is passive aggressive, quietly starting fights between others. Or perhaps the person is underperforming. And truly aggressive, anti-social elephants must be removed for the good of the herd and the organization.
When you look closely, do you have any destructive elephants hiding in your organization? What can you do to remove them or eliminate their ability to cause damage?
Is “A Culture of Nice” Killing Your Nonprofit?
Ted joined the board of a local nonprofit homeless shelter 18-months ago, after volunteering at the shelter for several years. He continues to volunteer at the shelter every Saturday night but has only attended one board meeting, doesn’t make a financial contribution, and doesn’t return the board chair’s phone calls. The governance committee has debated whether to speak with Ted about his poor board performance, but they don’t want him to feel undervalued and quit volunteering.
Other board members only attend about half the meetings, and the board often fails to reach quorum for meetings. In fact, last quarter the board couldn’t authorize a state contract due to lack of quorum, and the state questioned why the execution process took so long.
Marcia has worked as the marketing person at the shelter for almost three years. She meets the minimum performance standards for her position – producing a weekly email blast, writing a newsletter, managing social media, conducting church outreach, and designing collateral materials. Board members and major donors have told the executive director that all the organization’s marketing feels uninspired and unoriginal. The email blast and social media followers have actually stopped growing, and the number of new subscribers barely replace those removing themselves from the list. The executive director isn’t comfortable addressing the issues with Marcia because she is producing the content requested and meeting deadlines.
This “culture of nice” is slowly killing the homeless shelter as board performance and staff-managed marketing continue to crash.
The organization’s leaders need to prepare for conversations with those who are underperforming. Specifically, they need to:
But this initial conversation is actually the “easy part”. The difficult conversation happens if someone recommits to meeting a standard without following through on that commitment. The leader needs to ask the person to step aside so that someone else can better fill their position. This can be done with compassion and empathy, but it needs to be clear that remaining part of the team is no longer an option.
Sometimes a board chair will say to me, “Dolph – if we followed this advice, we would lose a third of our board before the end of the year.” But what have they really lost? Usually, it’s a person who is a board member in name only. They haven’t lost a contributing participant in board-level conversations, a stellar cheerleader for the organization, or an incredible community ally.
As a former executive director, I would rather have a smaller, engaged, and energetic board committed to finding more leaders like themselves.
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This past Saturday, someone at Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency pressed the wrong button. As you’ve undoubtedly heard, this sent a message via cell phones, radio, and even the highway warning system that a ballistic missile strike had been launched against the state.
Given our nation’s icy tension with North Korea, residents and tourists were understandably scared and panicked.
What’s more, many people didn't know the location of their local bomb shelters (and people under 35 probably don’t even remember evacuation drills that included bomb shelters). In fact, individuals were so unprepared for a possible missile strike that PBS reported the Google search phrase “survive nuclear” spiked during the false alarm.
While this isn’t how anyone wants to learn about surviving a potential attack, the false alarm probably prepared the Hawaiian Islands for a potential attack better than any routine drill. In the days following the false alarm, residents undoubtedly researched the location of their local bomb shelter; discussed plans for communicating with and protecting family members during an emergency; and identified other precautions they can take in the event of an attack.
Additionally, the state’s Emergency Management Agency has also learned their systems for ensuring accurate warnings aren’t fool proof.
I don’t want to minimize the very real sense of fear and panic that Hawaiians and tourists felt that day, but how do we respond when someone in our organization makes a mistake? Do we immediately seek to identify and punish the person who made a mistake or do we want to make this a teachable moment? Do we want to use the mistake as an opportunity to build a stronger organization and a healthier team?
In the spirit of recognizing that we all make mistakes, it might be helpful to acknowledge some of my bigger blunders and how my employer responded:
Of the many mistakes I made in my first job, the two most significant involved the submission of grant proposals. In that very first year after graduating from college, I drafted a proposal to a local women’s foundation that included an anticipated outcome of a certain number of women leaving abusive partners. When conducting the pre-award site visit, the foundation’s volunteers expressed genuine disbelief that we would make such an unrealistic commitment, and they noted that such a naiveté did not reflect well on the organization’s expertise. Looking back almost 25 years later, I share and understand their concerns.
The organization could have fired or demoted me but instead implemented a better system for program supervisors to review grant proposals as part of the drafting process. Consequently, I learned about programming from more experienced professionals and the organization submitted stronger grant proposals.
A few years later when the grant department grew, this system for internally reviewing grant proposals served our agency well.
The second big mistake occurred after the grant department started to grow. My responsibilities increased to include supervising a grant writer and managing accreditation for the organization. During this transition, I missed the deadline to request the renewal of a $10,000 grant.
The day after the proposal would have been due, I realized my mistake. If this was a punitive environment, many people would have quietly removed the proposal from the shared spreadsheet and hoped no one asked about it. But in this amazing environment that accepted mistakes as part of a larger learning process, I openly shared my failure. I spoke with both the Development Director and the Executive Director, explained that I missed an important deadline, and noted the steps I would take to ensure that this never happened again.
Once again, the organization didn’t even write me up. They thanked me for my candor and clearly communicated that meeting deadlines was a critical part of my job.
And I was true to my word - never missing another grant deadline. After all, it’s okay to make a mistake, but it’s not okay to make the same mistake repeatedly.
How does your organization respond to mistakes?
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