Board Member No-Nos

March 31, 2015

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog and in my book The Little Book of Boards talking about how board members should act, what their key responsibilities are, and much more.

But I haven’t devoted as much time to talking about the opposite: what board members shouldn’t do.

A recent experience reminded me that this might be needed:

A few years ago, I built a website for a nonprofit through the marketing and design company my wife and I run. (This is true of several nonprofits, so I don’t think I’m giving away any identities here.)

A board member at this particular nonprofit doesn’t like the website anymore and thinks it should be revamped. That’s all fine and good—board members should be pushing an organization forward.


The only reason I, the former web developer, know that the board member thinks it should be revamped is because he’s emailed me. Several times. He wants bids, he wants to know what the site is capable of, what the executive director can modify with the current site. On and on. All behind the back of the executive director.

This is appallingly bad behavior for a board member. It is the very definition of a loose cannon.

It created more work for me, it created headaches for the executive director, and it completely ignores all the board structures of the nonprofit.

But it did give me an idea for a post here, so I guess there was something good to come out of it. Without further ado, here are five Board No-Nos.

Getting paid

Unlike corporate boards, board members of nonprofits shouldn’t get paid by the nonprofit. If you are a marketing expert, you should not charge the nonprofit for your marketing work. Either get off the board and have the nonprofit as your client, or help the board find another marketing expert (since you are also a marketing expert, you could actually be of great service here).

You shouldn’t accept payment from a nonprofit if you sit on the board.

Going rogue

One of the biggest risks on a nonprofit board is that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

You simply can’t be out soliciting bids for a new website (for example) without other board members or the executive director knowing about it.

“Go fast, go alone; Go far, go together.”

A nonprofit needs to go far. It has to go together. It can mean slow work, sometimes, but it’s essential.

Being on a board with a family member

I love my wife. We work together every day on our business. But we should not serve on a board of directors together.

Let’s say we were having an off-day at home before a board meeting. We would bring that dynamic to our discussions at the board meeting.

Now, maybe you and your spouse never fight, so you wouldn’t do this. 🙂 But that’s just as problematic. If your spouse gets into an argument with another board member, whose side are you going to take? Probably your spouse. Jump in, and everyone will roll their eyes. “Of course you’re taking his side,” they’ll think.

In short: if you serve on a board with a family member, you are (and always will be) family members first. It’s an awkward and difficult dynamic for other board members. You should avoid it.

(The exception to this rule is very small nonprofits. A small board and a small budget might mean that you have a married couple on the board in its early stages. As the board and nonprofit grow, though, this should be come less and less acceptable.)

Directing staff or volunteers below the executive director

The executive director is the supervisor of all staff and volunteers at the nonprofit. It’s inappropriate for board members to direct staff or volunteers. It might feel like nothing to ask the nonprofit’s bookkeeper to do something for you. But you don’t know that employee’s workload or how that request fits in with the jobs that the executive director has already assigned (perhaps that even contradict your request!).

Playing politics

Your board should not have as much political machinations as Congress. Don’t spend your time trying to count votes. If you’re aiming to sway half the board (plus one) to your side and no more you are doing a real disservice to the organization. If you’re doing this, you’re trying way too strongly to get your way. You’re putting your feelings ahead of the good of the nonprofit.

Votes that divide the board like this should be a rarity and even when they do happen, board members shouldn’t working behind the scenes trying to drum up votes.

Thinking everything is fine and nothing needs to change

Did I say five no-no’s? Well, here’s a sixth. Boards and nonprofits need to evolve and improve. If you’re not changing, you’re falling behind.

Because of the slow pace that nonprofits must work at to build consensus, this is especially important. It means that at all times you should be striving to improve, adapt, and grow.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “you’re done.” If you’d like to think about improving your own understanding of what it means to be a board member, please consider checking out my book The Little Book of Boards: A Board Member’s Handbook for Small (and Very Small) Nonprofits. It is useful for an individual board member, but a whole board would get great mileage from reading it together. You can download a free preview of “The Little Book of Boards” to see if this is the right resource to help your board continue to improve.

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