Over the years I have frequently heard Executive Directors and board chairs share their disappointment over poorly performing board members. The complaints typically focus on board members who consistently engage in low attendance at board meetings, offer inadequate participation in important discussions, avoid committee or special project responsibilities and, worst of all, exhibit low energy and lack of passion for the mission.

The problem usually began when the volunteer was initially recruited to join the board. 

There are many reasons why someone is asked to join a board and equally as many reasons why they agree to do so. The board chair, or some other influencer in the organization, may know the volunteer and want to put forth the invitation to a good friend. The prospect may be well-known as a substantial donor, or may have a position at a highly regarded local corporation that is expected to become a strong supporter, or may have professional experience that is seen as providing a significant benefit for the organization (such as a career in marketing, public relations, human resources, law or accounting for example).

On the other side of the equation, the prospective new board member may be interested in joining the board for the prestige, the potential exposure in the business community, or to help boost a resume by demonstrating a local philanthropic commitment. But in any event, the prospect may be seeking to gain value from the group rather than identifying an opportunity to add value to the group.

Unfortunately, what is missing is a sincere dedication to the vision and mission of the nonprofit.

While it is all too easy to be temporarily blinded by a major corporate connection or a generous financial contribution, this can lead to disappointment down the road.

Before a board member is asked to serve, there should be a process in place that includes rigorous interview sessions with other board members and paid staff. This is one way to determine the prospect’s true level of interest and the real potential for future engagement with the group.

Even after being interviewed, everyone who is invited to join the board should be given a comprehensive list of expectations prior to making a final decision. This the best time to analyze the board member’s role and to fully understand the standards of behavior that the nonprofit anticipates from its supporters regarding a commitment of “time and treasure” as well as the possibility of making connections or key introductions. If the prospect feels that he or she cannot meet those standards, it is much better to acknowledge this before joining the board than after the decision has been made.

There are many templates and samples of “Board Member Contracts” that any organization can leverage for ideas to incorporate into its agreement. Each board has its own unique standards – ranging from a focus on attendance to introductions to minimum financial support – and everything in between.

Low energy can be contagious.

While asking a board member to leave the position before the term has expired, or even thinking about ‘firing’ a volunteer, is incredibly painful, nonetheless sometimes the circumstances demand this type of action. The longer a poorly performing board member continues without being challenged, the more damage is done to lower the morale of the staff and other volunteers who quickly observe that the rules and expectations are not applied with equity for all as some poor performers seem to get a ‘pass’ regardless of their insufficient behavior. The job of board member should be handled with the same seriousness as any corporate role. This should also include an annual self-review for all board members as well as an annual review with the board chair. These conversations are designed to produce the necessary feedback, insights, and constructive criticisms and suggestions that will alert the board member of concerns and issues looming and therefore reduce the chance for surprises regarding performance that arise later.

There’s additional, more subtle danger in allowing a poor performing board member to linger as a member of the board when they are not contributing as planned. Just as high energy, passion and sincere concern can be infectious, igniting the board and gaining consensus and building momentum, so too can lack of interest drain the spirit and diminish the enthusiasm of others on the board.

At some point, every person on the board must behave as an advocate, a champion, and at times, the face of the organization in the community. As such, if they are lackluster, it can cast a pall over the entire nonprofit.

Selecting dynamic board members.

By starting the process of adding new board members by conducting an honest and transparent interview, asking thoughtful questions, and providing clarity around a reasonable and fair set of expectations, the chance of making a wise choice is greatly enhanced.

Holding open and candid conversations prior to joining the board is step one, but keeping the engagement level high by including board members in meaningful discussions and strategic decisions going forward is step two.  Using a two-pronged approach that includes selecting smart, reliable trustees who understand what is expected of them, the organization can position itself to be effective, reach its goals, and achieve its mission.