Leading Nonprofit Board Members By Tom Okarma

Leading Nonprofit Board Members – It  Is Not Always Easy

Sooner or later, every nonprofit leader has a problem with a board member. How this issue is dealt with separates the successful leaders from the rest of the pack. You may find certain nonprofit board members are causing unnecessary problems. Yet, you want to maintain peace and retain them as directors. How can you accomplish this? It’s easier said than done.

Regardless of whether you are a nonprofit leader or a board chair, have you experienced any of these sticky situations in your leadership?

Top 11 Board Member Issues

  • Personal friends or family members no longer add value to the board or become a distraction
  • Your directors want to be nice and not hurt feelings – so they fail to speak truth. They forget their governance role and no longer speak their minds
  • Directors fail to live up to their donation and fund raising commitments
  • A board member consistently fails to deliver on his/her commitments and obligations as an officer of the agency
  • When directors do not come to meetings prepared or ready to engage
  • You’d prefer to not offer a second term to a board member just finishing his/her initial three-year term
  • A board member consistently rambles in meetings and rarely adds substance to the discussion
  • When long-serving nonproft board members believe their opinions are worth more than new directors and become overbearing, bottlenecks, naysayers, or change-resistant
  • Directors take a relaxed approach to their board duties
  • When directors get personal and attack a specific person, rather than the issue
  • When a director seems to have a personal agenda around certain topics

Sometimes, I think I’d rather go out and make cold call, drop-in visits to community businesses seeking financial support than face these problems. What do you do?


My experience tells me that too many leaders simply hope the problem goes away, that the offending director somehow “gets” the message, or hunker down until the offending director’s board term is up. You won’t find these options in any leadership book, nor will you see any effective leader use them. Whether you lead a secular or faith based nonprofit, it is important to keep the agency engine running as smoothly s possible.

I hear excuses like “their heart is in the right place because they are doing God’s work”…or, “they are helping our vets get re-established”… All wonderful causes, ones worth serving, but sorry, I can’t buy that. In fact, it is exactly because someone is either doing God’s work or helping our vets that a leader should feel a higher responsibility to have the very best and most effective board possible. And, that doesn’t mean one can ignore tough situations like these.


I believe all the examples above call for a face-to-face, heart-to-heart conversation with the offending director (or the entire board) about the “damage” they are causing. Maybe damage is too strong a word, but these nonprofit board members are certainly keeping the team from operating at peak levels.  I’ve written previously about how you might prep for and conduct such a meeting.

I like hearing facts when I need to make an important change; so do many others. For some directors, sharing hard facts illuminating the impact of their behavior is enough to get them to change. For others, an appeal to their emotional side will do the same thing.

Regardless of approach taken, you know your team’s demeanor and culture better than anyone. You need to take the lead in addressing these behavioral problems before they become ingrained habits. Once that happens, good luck getting someone to change, or to get other high value candidates to join your dysfunctional board.


Leadership requires having the moral courage to say what needs to be said to those who need to hear it.

Are you ready to do the right thing?


Tom Okarma is a successful leader in both the nonprofit and business worlds and has led or served on a variety of boards. He’s been there, done that, and learned critical lessons about successful board development and governance. He serves on the Christian Leadership Alliance Advisory Council as a subject matter expert for board governance. You can learn more about his work at Nonprofit Leadership Development.

Strong governance is essential to the success of a nonprofit ministry. At the Outcomes Conference 2018 there will be special sessions focused on equipping and strengthening nonprofit board directors and the senior leaders who are accountable to them. Tom Okarma will be among the distinguished faculty serving this year and he will be teaching a session on Building Boards for Kingdom Impact.   Download this PDF to discover all the session being offered in 2018.


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