Nonprofit Boards: When Passion for the Mission Isn’t Enough

My recent posts on nonprofit employee and volunteer disengagement struck a chord. The feedback I received tells me there are a lot of frustrated people who work in the nonprofit sector. (Check out Rosetta Thurman’s blog post and guest post, “Why Do Nonprofits Treat Their Employees Like Crap” published earlier this year.)

Among volunteers, I also heard from nonprofit board members who are disenchanted. What distinguishes board members from their fellow volunteers is the board’s primary responsibility for the organization – board members provide governance, fiduciary oversight, and strategic direction; boards are also responsible for hiring and evaluating a nonprofit’s chief staff person. However, these higher levels of responsibility do not guarantee full and long-lasting engagement! Board members are also at risk of disengaging from a nonprofit and withdrawing their organizational leadership and support.


I heard from several current and former board members who serve(d) in a variety of nonprofits about their experiences. Here’s what they shared.

  • Under-utilized. Like most volunteers, board members get involved to make a difference and give back in some way. A board member told me that while she enjoys her board service, she’s frustrated because she would like the board to do more than just serve as a “high level rubber stamp.”
  • Unevenly engaged. One nonprofit asks each member of its board of directors to sign a letter of agreement that they’ll “actively participate” in their board roles. What that term means has not been clarified, so board participation ranges from “showing up at meetings” to “just call me when you need my help” to “being fully prepared for board meetings and carrying out committee assignments.”
  • Unevenly recognized. A long-time director who helped with fundraising, served on the CEO search committee, and was actively involved in planning and participating in several special events, received the same recognition plaque as another board member who only attended board meetings and an occasional event.
  • Unwilling to rock-the-boat. A new board member of another nonprofit got fed up with the board’s ‘passive’ culture that was reinforced by the CEO. This board member commented, “A board which is kept out of touch with the daily operations and what truly drives the organization cannot be effective.”

What’s a board member to do?

No matter how much due diligence and research you do before becoming involved with a nonprofit, you may not find any disconnects or dissonance until after you start your board service. Unanticipated changes to the organization’s culture and operation may also occur as a result of staff, volunteer, and leadership turnover. Regardless of the situation, if you find yourself becoming disenchanted and disengaged it’s time to perform a reality check. Talk with board members you respect to determine if the situation is just frustrating to you or if others share your feelings; i.e., is it an individual board member problem or a problem board?

  • If others share your concern: discuss how best to address the situation. An invaluable tool for any board is an ongoing self-evaluation that assesses board and organizational effectiveness, including board-staff engagement.
  • If it’s solely your concern: ask yourself whether or not it makes sense to continue your board service. Do you feel strongly enough about the mission that you’re willing to adjust your expectations to continue to serve? Or is there another way you can support the mission without being on the board?

If you’re discouraged to the point that you can no longer tolerate the situation, then gracefully resign and regroup. Give yourself a breather … and if you’re still interested in volunteering, find another worthwhile organization that’s a better fit with your talent and passion.

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