Helping board members resign with dignity

first 90 daysOn Tuesday of this week, my blog post titled “The executive director’s first 90 days” focused on what the new CEOs and boards should do during those crucial first few months. That post took me for a walk down memory lane to when I was a new executive director embarking on new and exciting challenges.

While it isn’t always the case, sometimes a new executive director finds themselves walking into a challenging situation. After all, there are reasons why people leave their place of employment and those stories aren’t always ideal. In extremely challenging circumstances (e.g. someone ran out the door or they were chased out the door), I guarantee you that the issues don’t just reside with the person who left. There are typically board issues related to the resignation or termination.

For example, in the case of embezzlement . . . you usually can’t just point at the embezzler. There is likely issues with oversight and internal control policies.

One of the best practices I mentioned in Tuesday’s post was that new executive directors should meet individually with every board member within their first 90 days.

One of the more common issues with which many new executive directors are faced (especially when going to work for an agency with little organizational capacity) is having the “wrong people” sitting around the boardroom table. The challenging question many new CEO’s find themselves asking is:

How can we tactfully ask well-intentioned board volunteers
to find a different seat on the bus?

As I reflected back upon my first 90 days (more than 14 years ago), I remembered that my board had 20 volunteers on the day they hired me and within my first three months nine board members resigned.

easy way outNow this didn’t happen because I smelled bad or people disliked me (at least I don’t think so). It happened because of how I approached my individual meetings with board members. Here is what was on my agenda:

  1. Introduce myself and talk about my background
  2. Engage board member in discussion on the “state of the agency
  3. Ask board member on where they see the agency in 3 to 5 years
  4. Share with the board member where you think you will need their help (e.g. their board roles & responsibilities, their role in fundraising, etc)
  5. Ask them to get more involved and in specific projects

When I had these discussions, those board volunteers, who weren’t a good fit for serving on the board, saw the handwriting on the wall. I didn’t have to tell them to get off the board. A simple, straight-forward conversation centered around expectations and vision was more than enough.

In most situations, it was only a few weeks after our meeting that a resignation letter was inked. Reasons always varied. Here are a few that I remember:

  • Work responsibilities won’t permit commitment of time necessary to serve on the board
  • Not willing/able to commit to fundraising responsibilities
  • Time commitments in personal life (e.g. caring for a sick relative)

In each instance, we celebrated the volunteer’s service. We engaged them in a discussion about finding a different seat on the bus that might be a better fit for them. It was respectful and graceful.

Now this approach isn’t always effective, and sometimes it isn’t appropriate.

For new executive directors, are there other approaches you might suggest with regards to giving good people an easy way off the board? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and ideas. We can all learn from each other!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on April 3, 2014, in Board development, Board governance, nonprofit and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi, Erik,

    I like the approach you’ve detailed. My question is, what do you do when you’re not a new ED–in fact, you’re not even the ED but you’re essentially doing the ED work, you’ve been around for a while, and you need to transition the board?

    My situation is this:

    – I’m the Director of Development & Advocacy for a faith-based non-profit. – My Executive Director and his wife are the founders of the organization who recruited the original board, and both volunteer their time to the organization. The wife manages (as a volunteer) the thrift store that supports the organization, and she is now joining the board. – Neither my ED nor his wife have prior non-profit experience. – The organization was started in 2005; I joined the staff in September 2011, signalling the first move toward transitioning the board and increasing focus on raising funds. – Several board members have come and gone. – We now have 6 board members: 1 who is on leave recovering from a brain aneurysm after birth of first child; 1 who is not engaged but critical to the organization; 1 who’s been engaged in the mission since the beginning; 2 who’re becoming engaged; 1 who’s across the state in SE Michigan and not really engaged but says he wants to be but is too busy (he phones in for board meetings). – We’re making some progress in engaging the board members; recently changed the board meeting from an information-relaying meeting to a working meeting–because the board is so small, the full board is on each committee–with one committee work session immediately following the board meeting. Right now we’re focused on Board Development and recruiting Board members. – We’re tackling board development issues right now, and my ED is slowly understanding the need to engage the board (his background is not nonprofit management, he’s a retired building contractor with a passion for the ministry). He’s pleased with the progress made in the last 2 months to more fully engage board members. I’m having to train up my ED on these issues. – The ED is pleased with the progress being made, but he feels he shouldn’t have to meet individually with board members or call them regularly. The Board President is pastor at the church where the ED is an elder so they are daily contact. – My thought is that it is good to call each Board member between the monthly Board meetings, at least to check in, perhaps get their opinion on something going on, or update them on something good that’s happened. I see this as part of engaging the Board–getting them to think about the organization more. What do you think? Is there something an ED should relay one-on-one with each board member between board meetings? Any suggestions?

    In our Board Development committee meeting, we do a Board training exercise which takes 5 to 10 minutes. This seems to be going over well with the Board.

    My ED’s skill set isn’t the typical ED skill set; he’s not really inclined to be involved in the community, so that falls in my purview, which is actually in my skill set, as well as having a large acquaintance with community leaders and others in the area and having a good knowledge of the area’s community history (having worked for state legislators from the area). My ED prefers me to handle this as opposed to him doing it.

    One of the things I’m running into is that other organization leaders in the community don’t understand why my ED isn’t the face of our organization in the community–and they question me about it. I generally deflect the question, but I’m wondering if that is not the best way to address it. I fear this may be detrimental to my organization if my ED is viewed as MIA. I’m careful to not step on his toes because I don’t want him or his wife to think I want to be ED so I can make more money–I’m pretty realistic about the limited pay this organization will be able to provide and don’t expect any raise for years.

    As you can tell, we are still pretty much a start-up even though the organization was formed in 2005.

    If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.


    • Julia:

      Thanks for your question. Sorry for the late response. The holiday weekend got in the way. đŸ˜¦

      Here are a few suggestions:

      1. Ask your CEO to develop a written performance plan for both you and him/her to provide greater clarity.
      2. Also ask your CEO to develop a written GRPI (I suggest Google to learn more) to provide greater clarity.
      3. If your agency doesn’t currently operate with a written annual resource development plan, then develop one with the participation of your board.
      4. If your agency doesn’t currently operate with a written stewardship plan, then develop one with the participation of your board.
      5. If your agency doesn’t currently have a board training calendar, then 1) assess skills gaps and 2) develop a training calendar for board meetings, board retreats and everything in between for thee current year.

      I hope this helps! Please check back and let me know about your progress.


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