Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

How to Stop Bad Behavior on Your Nonprofit Board

Stop Bad Behavior on Your Nonprofit Board | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

To be productive, your nonprofit board must have an open dialogue, productive discussions, and respect for everyone involved. If an individual board member brings sharp and unproductive criticism to board discussions or demeans other board members or staff, he or she will be a detriment to your organization and its mission.

A truly toxic board member will poison the group dynamics. Toxic behavior often brings out the worst in others. Poor behavior and negative attitudes can reduce meeting attendance, lead to faster board and staff turnover, and reduce your chances of finding the best future board members.

Remedies for Common Bad Behaviors

Everyone on your board is responsible for cultivating the best working environment and ensuring that goals are met. But a key role of your board president (and sometimes the governance committee is dealing with unproductive or toxic board members. Some toxic behavior can be remedied by effective early intervention.

Bad board behavior has many causes. Three examples of bad behavior and possible remedies are discussed below.

  • Antagonism toward staff. Antagonism toward staff may be the result of a poor working relationship between your executive director and a particular board member. A little outreach to the antagonistic board member may go a long way toward resolving the problem. If the board member does not behave in a more civil manner, offer that person a graceful way to reduce his or her responsibilities and possibly leave the board altogether. An antagonistic member may simply be a bad fit and looking for an elegant exit.
  • Unproductivity. Sometimes unclear expectations cause a lack of productivity. Your board should make expectations clear before a new member joins the group. It may be helpful to explain how other board members fulfill their expectations. Your board should regularly discuss, agree upon, and enforce expectations.
  • Disengagement. Previously engaged board members may disengage for personal reasons, such as a health problem, the death of a spouse, a divorce, or a new child. A board member may have overestimated the time he or she could dedicate to the cause. Your board should work with the disengaged member to clarify how much time and emotional energy the member has to dedicate to your board. This board member may be able to temporarily step down from a leadership role while his or her personal issues are resolved. At the very least, transfer this member's responsibilities to someone else. You can also make a leave of absence possible, such as maternity leave or disability leave, just as you would for an employee.

Remedies for a Systemic Problem

Board nonparticipation may also be based in a systemic problem. If meeting attendance and engagement are dropping in general, your board should talk about the issue directly. You can distribute a survey that helps everyone understand what is making participation difficult. The problem might be as simple as the frequency or timing of meetings.

Informal outreach over lunch or coffee may also help your board president understand systemic problems. The more active board members and your executive director may provide key insights to the president. Once your president has assessed the situation, your board may need to revise expectations by:

  • Reducing individual board responsibilities
  • Designing tasks so busy people can complete them and do well

Remedies for Truly Toxic Behavior

It would be unusual for your board to face a truly toxic board member. But sometimes, a board member just doesn't play well with others. Occasionally, a board member will go so far as to act unethically and unprofessionally.

While disagreements and arguments are an important part of healthy board operations, disruptive or belligerent behavior that prevents good decision-making must be managed. If your board faces this situation, you will have to remove the toxic board member. Your board's bylaws should include provisions for board removal as a prudent precaution. Consider including the following provisions in your bylaws:

Term limits. Most boards institute term limits, such as two-year terms with a limit of three consecutive terms. Term limits offer a non-confrontational way to deal with unproductive or toxic members and encourage fresh perspectives from new members. Be aware, however, that not everyone will agree with this approach. Opponents of term limits argue that there are no bad board members, just bad leadership. They believe that the leadership should confront a problematic board member directly rather than waiting for the member's term to end.

The following example of a term limits policy is excerpted from the American Law Institute's bylaws:

  • Council members are elected from the Institute's membership by the members at an annual meeting of the membership. The term of Council members is five years beginning at the close of the annual meeting at which the election occurs and terminating at the close of the annual meeting five years later.
  • A vacancy that occurs on the Council due to the death, resignation, or removal of a Council member during the member's term may be filled temporarily only by the Council. A person appointed under this paragraph to fill a vacancy is a member of the Council only until the next annual meeting of the membership of the Institute.
  • A Council member may serve no more than three consecutive terms, except that if at the end of three consecutive terms a Council member is an officer of the Institute, that member's term on the Council is extended, if it otherwise would have terminated, so that it terminates at the same time as the member's then term of office. However, if the Council member is serving a first term as president and the Council elects the member to a second term as president, the member's term on the Council is extended to terminate at the same time as the second term in the office of president, after which it is extended further to terminate at the same time as the member's term as chair of the Council if so appointed.

Impeachment process. To remedy extreme cases of bad behavior, your board's bylaws should include an impeachment process. Here is an example of standard language your bylaws could include:

IMPEACHMENT: Any holder of an elected position may be removed and replaced by a two-thirds (2/3) vote of a general or special meeting of the membership. Removal does not require cause.

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.

You can learn more about nonprofit operations from the Nonprofit Management Education Center offered by the Center for Community and Economic Development, which is part of the University of Wisconsin Division of Cooperative Extension. This resource includes a library of articles and an Organizational Assessment Tool.