Your board of directors should serve as a compass that helps you chart your organization’s strategic and developmental course. Having said that, your board’s performance is a major factor in its ability to provide effective governance and sound counsel to you and your staff.
As an executive director and board advisor who works closely with nonprofit organizations, I find boards that are mission-driven, compliance minded, and harmonious enable organizations to maximize performance and achieve optimal results. However, directors’ negative conduct can impair a board’s performance, give rise to bad board dynamics, and essentially create dysfunction.
As a nonprofit leader, it is essential to quickly identify toxic board behaviors and navigate members away from conduct that has the potential to render your board dysfunctional.
To help you identify potential red flags, I have listed eight common signs of a dysfunctional board:
- Unpreparedness among Board Members. Board members have a fiduciary responsibility to be prepared and to make meaningful contributions at every board meeting. In doing so, they should demonstrate that they have reviewed meeting material in advance, and are ready to discuss each agenda item. Most importantly, they provide a rationale for supporting or not supporting board recommendations or actions.
- Board Members Don’t Clearly Know Their Role. Each board member should receive a description of his/her role, which explains their position and the policies that govern that position. These position descriptions should be outlined in your organization’s bylaws.
- Excessive Absenteeism among Members. The most productive board member is the member that is always present. Not only is attendance important to ensure productivity, adequate member attendance ensures a quorum at every meeting. Perpetual absenteeism among members, and the inability to have a quorum, will hinder your board’s progress and its ability to act on critical issues.
- Lack of Confidentiality: Board meetings are settings where open and candid discussions are held. Hence, confidentiality is of the utmost importance and must be maintained at all times. To ensure complete discretion, board members should sign code of ethics and confidentiality statements upon assuming a seat on your board. For members serving a second term, these statements should be reviewed and the board member’s commitment renewed each term. In addition, as part of your organization’s hiring practice, such forms should be reviewed and signed by staff members.
- Undefined Term Limits: Although bylaws vary by organizations, they essentially establish rules and procedures by which the board is governed. This includes term limits, voting procedures for electing new board members, and the process for electing officers. If, indeed, your organization does not have bylaws, beware! The absence of organizational bylaws clearly spells “dysfunction.”
- No Buy-In from Board Members: Your board is entrusted to make policy decisions that will have a lasting impact on your organization. As such, it is crucial that all board members are in tune and on board with the overall direction of the organization. If you are unable to harvest buy-in from board members, this may signal other inherent problems, including:
- Communications issues between you and your board;
- A misalignment between the organization’s (internal staff) agenda and the board’s agenda; and/or
- A lack of confidence in your executive leadership among board members.
Whatever the situation, it is imperative to identify and address issues that stand in the way of your gaining complete confidence and buy-in from your board.
- Lack of Understanding of Organization’s Mission: Your board of directors is a key component in the growth and development of your organization. Therefore, directors must be clear about the organization’s mission or else they run the risk of routing the organization off course. Having said that, it is imperative that you educate your directors on the organization’s mission, history, its strengths, and its challenges. This information is typically communicated during the board’s orientation and the strategic planning process.
- Board Members with Personal Agendas: Individuals who accepts a board appointment should do so to advance the organization’s mission. Hence, they offer their time, expertise, professional network and unique talents solely for that purpose. A board seat should never be sought for prestige or to advance one’s personal or business agenda. To avoid individuals with such intent, screen potential board members very closely. In addition, make sure all new directors are well versed on your organization’s policies regarding conflicts of interest. In fact, board members should be required to disclose any potential conflict—business or otherwise—and sign conflict of interest and disclosure statements. These documents should be reviewed during board orientation and referenced in meetings when necessary.
Finally, a well-functioning board can be instrumental in guiding your organization to high levels of success. The key, however, is to recognize the signs of dysfunctional conduct among members before they impair the performance of your entire board.