My Board Sucks--and other tales of woe

My daughter is very unhappy with her childcare situation. With 4-month-old twins, she is finding the solutions difficult. I’m not minimizing her concerns, but I do see her falling into the two-step trap of getting so caught up in what’s wrong that (a) she wouldn’t see a solution if it bit her and (b) creating an even bigger monster than exists because her focus is entirely on the negative. It reminds me a lot of how many nonprofit professionals deal with their boards.

Boards of directors are both the biggest boon and greatest problem of many nonprofits. It’s a clear case of not being able to live with or without them. They are the most consistent topic of conversation I have with Executive Directors. And it’s not often a good conversation.

Typically, it starts with a complaint: My board won’t, doesn’t, isn’t. Or is too much of. Being a problem solver, I tend to want to identify the real problem (and no, it’s NOT that the board doesn’t fundraise or does micromanage; that’s the symptom). And then I want to look for a solution.

Silly me.

Often that is not what the Exec wants.   He/she wants to vent. And doesn’t want to take responsibility. Because if your Board is ineffectual, not committed, action adverse or too involved in your day-to-day activities, it is as much a failure of management as anything.

I’m not suggesting that the ED is 100% at fault. The point here is not to place blame. The point is to turn your board into an asset instead of a liability. And if that is not the ED’s point, we have a totally different problem.

The first thing is to radically change your way of thinking. Instead of focusing on what is bad, think about what is good.

Consider your board members. Can you list three good things each board member has done? These do not have to be exceptional, just good. Then ask yourself, how have I recognized these actiions?

Right, said one of my clients when I suggested this. I am supposed to make a big deal because my board member showed up at 3 meetings?

Well, as a former staff member of mine used to equivocate, yes and no.

Yes, take the time to thank that board member for showing up (or showing up sometimes), and no, don't leave it at that. After saying thank you,  gently talk about how that action could be a wonderful first step for really important board work.

As with donors, asking for advice is often the better route than making a bold request. Think about, “Joan, I do want to thank you for coming to the board meetings. It seems like a small step, I know, but it is an important one. Would you share with me your thoughts about the meetings? What works for you? What could be more engaging? “ How about, “If you were in charge of board meetings, what would you change?”

  • Ask about the days leading up to the meeting:
  • Are we getting you the materials on time?
  • What could we do to make them more inviting for board members to read?
  • Are there things you feel are missing? Things you wish were missing from the packet?

Once you have this conversation going, start talking about what you would like to see board members contribute. Ask how the member feels about that? What support would she need to make that contribution? How, in other words, can you and your staff support your board?

If, instead of carping on what you are not getting, you celebrate that which you are—and talk collaboratively about what would be wonderful, you might find yourself in for a great surprise.

Your miserable, uninvolved board just may turn out to be a great source of support and—even better—a real partner in getting the important work of your organization done.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase fundraising capacity and build better board/staff partnerships.  Learn how she could help you and your organization at While there, don't forget to click on classes and workshops to see where Janet is presenting. Email her directly at