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Board Member Challenges

Serving too long, when a board member outstays their welcome

Likely, you’ve known a few: board members who outstay their welcome. It’s a problem no one likes to draw attention to but one that can really harm the health of an organization.
These tenured board members have the tendency to fall into a few categories of unhealthy involvement. They often become too comfortable in their role and can dominate discussion, ultimately controlling board actions. Or they become burnt out, tired with the responsibility and no longer productive or willing to participate in significant ways.
But “wait” you say! Long time board members know the organization’s history. Vocal board members get things done. Quiet board members don’t make waves and can serve as peacemakers.
Consider this: in many instances long-time board members restrict opportunities for community access and board involvement. They can stifle fresh perspectives and new ideas. This limits the board’s ability to fulfill its role of representing community interests in organizational decisions and leadership.
So, what can be done?
An organization’s bylaws should clearly establish term limits and election protocol. Bylaws should outline how to fill vacancies as well as what the removal process is for board members and officers.  Rules governing board and officer terms, elections, and removal should be followed as outlined.  The bylaws are an excellent tool to reference on a potentially touchy subject, without pointing fingers or assigning blame.  If your bylaws aren’t clear or sufficient in this area, revise them.
Following your bylaws may create some open seats on the board, or even some competition for the same seat.  These are healthy opportunities for the organization to seek new and diverse community representation and generate awareness.  
Board Matrix
Create a board matrix, a chart of the skills and experience represented on the board as well as what might be needed to better govern the organization.  This will help ease the process of filling empty board seats. Maintain a list of prospective, qualifying, and interested board members based on the established criteria.  Then when an opening comes, you are prepared to fill it, and you need not rely on the same person to serve yet another term.  Often, board members find themselves in long-term service not because they want to but because there is no one to replace them. 
Job Descriptions
It is almost impossible for a board member to be engaged if their purpose and responsibilities are unclear.  Job descriptions should outline the responsibilities and expectations of board members and officers to aid their understanding of their role in the organization, and they should be regularly reviewed.  Additionally, job descriptions can serve as a reference point to help long-time board members determine whether a different volunteer position might be a better fit.   
Policies and Procedures
Two other valuable tools include a conflict of interest policy and standard operating procedures for board meetings.  The conflict of interest policy won’t eliminate, but can help prevent, personal interests taking priority over the interests of the organization and community.  Standard operating procedures for the board can be best implemented through a meeting agenda and culture that makes clear the meeting expectations, from the chair calling the meeting to order, to including only items on the agenda for action and discussion that moves an issue toward action.   
All of the above are preemptive, intended to set the organization up for success before a problem arises, and provide a set of rules to reference as needed.  If these tools aren’t already being used, transitioning to development and use of them will take some time.  During transition, or anytime you find yourself in a challenging situation, communication is a powerful tool that is frequently overlooked.  If a board member isn’t behaving according to expectations, a private conversation to learn what may be causing their behavior can do wonders.   You may learn that the individual is better suited to committee work than board work, or you may uncover need for a new board policy. 


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501 Consultants partners with nonprofits and their leadership to help solve the most pressing strategic challenges. From full management to project-based consulting, our knowledge in nonprofits assists groups and associations to advance their community, regional, state and national interests.

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