Bad Boards

It seems churlish to complain about perfectly lovely people who volunteer their time, not to mention their money, to serve on nonprofit boards.  And, truthfully, most of the time, there is not all that much reason to complain.  Indeed, much of my business is doing workshops and retreats with boards and I am pretty generally impressed by the quality of people, the high level of commitment and the real interest in not just doing good but doing it well. Then there are those few.  When they are part of a larger Board, they serve as irritants.  But when they become the majority on a nonprofit Board—watch out.

What makes a Board member bad?  I once asked a lot of Executive Directors that question.  Their answers:

  • They don’t give
  • They won’t do fundraising
  • They micromanage
  • They take up too much of my time and energy
  • They don’t follow through on assignments
  • They come to meetings unprepared
  • They don’t participate in meetings
  • They don’t come to meetings

Makes you wonder why people serve on boards to begin with.  And therein lies a lot of what makes people good or bad board members.  We’ll call this the Good, the (not so) Bad and the Ugly.  Sometimes very ugly, indeed.

The Good. These are the Board members who serve because they have:

  • A passion for the organization
  • A desire to help the organization achieve its visio


These people also serve because of the:

  • Impact of organization on the community
  • Opportunity to make a difference
  • Prestige of other Board Members
  • Reputation of leadership

The (not so) Bad are those who come on a Board because:

  • Need to build a resume
  • Friendship with other Board member(s)
  • Business requirement
  • Need to feel useful
  • Interest in learning new skills
  • Fellowship and fun
  • They were asked

And the Ugly? Those Board members you just wish would go away?  They serve because they have a:

  • Desire for recognition
  • Interest in career or social advancement

And most insidiously, because they are going to

  • Advise you on how to do it right! Which wouldn’t be so very bad if they bothered to learn anything about your organization, what it means to be a Board member, or even just offered their advice as one way to perhaps do something.  But no, these people are sure that—without any proof to back them up—what they think is the right, the only right way to do whatever it is they are telling you what to be doing.

It is these Board members that make otherwise sane and good-intentioned Executive Directors dream of one-year term limits.

Janet Levine works with nonprofit organizations, helping them to build their resource development capacity.  To learn more about her, her online grantwriting class and Get Ready, Get Set, Get Grants the only grantwriting book you really need, check out  You can buy the book directly at