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How to Prevent Board Members from ‘Checking Out’ on Your Organization

Photo of author, Kathleen McDermott.
Kathleen McDermott
Business Development Manager and Director of Nonprofit Advisory Services

If you are an Executive Director or serve in a Board leadership position, you may have had to deal with an unengaged board member who, for all intent and purposes, has ‘checked out’ and no longer contributes to your organization in a meaningful way.

Because searching and vetting new Board members may be a luxury of time you don’t currently have, we suggest implementing a few “preventive measures” to keep this situation from happening in the first place — four measures that will keep your board, and its engagement with your mission, both vibrant and alive.

  1. Enforce Term Limits. Term Limits cause a lot of angst and are often one of the most controversial board topics. However, if term limits are reasonable, made clear during new board member orientation, and enforced, most board members will have a clear understanding of their time commitment and will be less likely to lose interest in the organization. Term limits allow inactive board members to leave gracefully and, with a staggered term limit arrangement, continually usher new people with fresh ideas and untapped networks into your organization.
  2. Use Commitment Forms. At the beginning of every fiscal year (and during orientation for new members), ask each board member to complete and sign an Annual Board Commitment Form. This form should define what is expected of individual board members in terms of meeting participation, committee participation, financial contribution, event attendance, volunteer hours, and more. Setting the expectations at the beginning of each year reminds your board how they add value and contribute to the overall success of the organization.
  3. Conduct Board Self-Assessments. While self-assessments are a great tool to evaluate the effectiveness of the full board (and make improvements as a result), these assessments also give members the opportunity to reflect on their individual contributions, ideally as defined by the Commitment Form. Sample assessment questions might include: “Have I attended the minimum number of board meetings as required by the Board Commitment Form?” or “Have I participated in at least one fundraising event during the course of the year?” Answering “no” to these types of questions will often prompt a board member to act and do a better job of fulfilling his or her obligations in the future.
  4. Keep Your Board Engaged. Simply put, an active and engaged board drives organizational success. However, leadership cannot expect an one board member to carry all the weight. The organization must make sure every board member is invested by providing them with timely and relevant information about projects, events, challenges, etc., and then maintaining open lines of communication to encourage ideas, feedback, and suggestions. Being intentional as to how you leverage an individual board member’s professional skills and personal interests, experience, and networks is also a great way to foster engagement.

Even if your organization implements the above measures, there’s always the chance you will encounter a board member who just doesn’t pull his or her weight. We know everyone gets busy and must prioritize their commitments at one time or another. Or in many cases, an individual discovers new interests or passions and doesn’t know the best way to walk away from an organization he has long supported. Whatever the instance, the best way to address a perpetually unengaged board member is to find out exactly why the person isn’t active. Ask another trusted board member to discuss the situation with that individual. Offer a solution that best fits the needs of that member: a temporary leave of absence, a new committee assignment, or (in the case of someone who has served the organization well for a long period of time) an honorary or emeritus appointment.

Don't let the situation go unaddressed. Be proactive to keep your board members fully "checked in" to the mission of your organization.

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