Difficult People on Your Nonprofit Board

Difficult people.  Whether it be a co-worker, a neighbor, or even that very special “in-law”, we all have them in our lives.  Chances are, you will have one serving on your nonprofit’s board of directors…if not now, eventually.  Sort of like death and taxes, there is a certain inevitability to it.  Given the volume of questions we get about this subject, I suspect you already know that.  The question is, how do you deal with this situation?  In this post, we are going to explore some steps to make this tough situation manageable.

Find the source of the conflict. This can be more difficult that you might think.  The temptation is to focus on the person and label them a malcontent or even a troublemaker.  Maybe that is true, maybe not.  We all bring our baggage to the table…some of us have a carry-on, others a steamer trunk!  Certainly, if every interaction with this person creates conflict, there is a very high likelihood that he or she is a lot of the problem.  But in your rush to judgment, don’t overlook legitimate concerns and observations.  Could it be that this person is right about an issue…and everybody else wrong?  It happens all the time.  I have often observed a herd-mentality overtaking a board, only to see one sane person rescue them before they all plunge over the cliff (I have even been that person!).  Hear the person out and weigh their considerations.  An engaged dissenter is often of much greater value than a unengaged yes-man.  And one more thing…a passionate stand on one issue does not a troublemaker make.

What to do, though, if this person really is the problem?  Let’s keep going…

Do damage control. Conflict and strife will suck the very life blood from your organization.  A healthy, vibrant charity can self-destruct with alarming speed by the actions of just one very determined troublemaker.  He or she will usually attempt to recruit allies on the board, often targeting weaker, less-informed board members.  They will circulate rumors and plant seeds of doubt among donors and members.  Though a takeover is usually their aim, they will settle for destruction.  As a leader, you CANNOT allow this to happen.  But don’t try to do this alone.  Make every effort to maintain unity with the rest of the board and them commit equally to the defense.  If the organization at large is mostly unaware of the conflict, keep it contained by dealing only with those it has affected.  If it has gone public, you cannot afford to look weak, defensive, or even worse, dodgy.  Hit it head on with the facts, presented firmly, with honesty, transparency and confidence.  And never, ever hit back personally.  It speaks volumes when you and your team keep cool.

Remove the offending board member (if possible). Your bylaws should contain provision for removing a board member.  Some bylaws require a unanimous vote of the other members; some require a particular offense to have been committed; some have other requirements.  The point is, you must follow the bylaws to the letter.  If you do not, be prepared for the inevitable lawsuit.  If your bylaws make it feasible, vote them out.  Be prepared to defend the action…again, with honesty, transparency and confidence.

Isolate the offender if you cannot remove them. If your bylaws make it impractical to remove the offender, you must live with them.  It is possible to isolate them without attempting to do an end-around.  Remember they still have full rights as a board member.  But, by successfully shoring up your base, you can render that person ineffective.  As a result, a resignation is often your reward.

Know when to fold ‘em. Unfortunately, the deck may be stacked against you…especially if you have been unaware of the magnitude of the problem or just simply slow to react.  If you are dealing with not one person, but a veritable mutiny, it is possible that you cannot win.  In fact, you could even be branded the bad seed and see the above tactics used against you.  It happens.  If you intend to fight, use every weapon available, but fight cleanly.  If you wind up having to walk away, you want to be able to do it with dignity and with your reputation intact.

I sincerely hope you never encounter such a situation.  Very careful selection of board members on the front end can certainly reduce the likelihood.  But human nature being what it is, conflict will happen.  Knowing how to manage it makes all the difference.

Greg McRay is the founder and CEO of The Foundation Group. He is registered with the IRS as an Enrolled Agent and specializes in 501(c)(3) and other tax exemption issues.

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