Tag Archive: Diana Kern

How Do We Remove A Disruptive Nonprofit Board Member?

Written by Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs

We frequently get calls from a frustrated officer of a nonprofit board or a CEO that wants to know “how to get rid of a disruptive board member.” What constituents being disruptive? This can include obvious things like rude or abusive behavior and foul language. But it can also include someone that refuses to relinquish the floor for others to speak, someone that continues to grand-stand on topics, or displays argumentative body language on a consistent basis. Board work is group work and not for people with unchecked ego’s, personal agendas or those that consistently demonstrate a sense of entitlement or inappropriate group behavior.

Boards that ignore disruptive members are damaging the effectiveness of the nonprofit and hurting sustainability and board development. By allowing someone to hijack the meetings your good board members will stop talking to avoid confrontation and will eventually withdraw to the point of quitting.

So, what should the board officers do? First, you need to refer to your bylaws and articles of incorporation to see what you are authorized to do to remove a board member under these documents. These are your legal governing documents and must be followed. Normally when we get the call and ask the question…“what do your bylaws say?”…no one has consulted them, or they are mute on the topic. Each state has legal precedence on this topic so if your bylaws are mute you must seek legal advice from an attorney with nonprofit experience.

Find out how many other board members are concerned about the behavior/issue. If one person is, usually many more are bothered as well but have not spoken up. The board chair should seek them out in private.

For Nonprofits in Michigan we suggest the following steps:

Step One – Talk to the Person
Start with a one-on-one discussion with the disruptive member. This conversation should occur with the chairperson/president of the board, not the chief executive of the nonprofit. Since it is not appropriate to allow conversations behind the volunteer board members back about their behavior the chair needs to jump on this as soon as concerns arise. Outline the concerns and inform the person that multiple people are concerned but DO NOT provide the names of other board members. Give them corrective steps they need to take and by when in order to avoid further issues with the productivity and trust of the board. Remind the individual that board work is group work. They agreed to this when they were elected and group dynamics and norms must be followed to ensure productivity and full engagement of all board members without fear of intimidation or in-fighting.

The Board Chair needs to explain that the peer group expects cooperation in behaving correctly and should the issue persist the board may vote to remove them from the board of directors pursuant to the bylaws and/or the State of Michigan precedence for volunteer board member removal. Tell them this will be the only conversation that will occur.

If the issue persists, the board chair should move to step two.

Step Two – Check In with Others Before Holding a Vote for Removal
If the person does not correct the disruptive behavior the Board Chair should talk with the other officers on the board to seek their input in the matter. If the officers agree that action should be taken to remove the board member the officers should inform the board member in question that they feel the behavior is indeed continuing and is counterproductive to the norms of the peer group and is undermining productivity. Ask the person in question to issue their own resignation from the board.

If the individual refuses to resign let them know that the officers will seek a vote for removal in executive session at the next meeting. Ask the person in question to honor all board members privacy and to avoid contacting other board members before the meeting. Let the individual know that the floor will be open to all at the meeting but discussion outside the meeting should not occur. This issue should in no way damage the mission or reputation of the nonprofit. Donors and staff should not be called.

Step Three – Consult the Bylaws for Removal Guidelines
If you have removal steps in your bylaws follow them.

Step Four – Do Not Start Paper Trails or Delay Action
Do not delay action and do not start paper trails or offer extended timelines for correction. Nonprofit boards are made up volunteers. There is no implied contract with a volunteer board member. At this stage if you think you might have an explosive situation with the individual you seek to remove consider contacting a human resources attorney with nonprofit board experience in your area for advice. A problem should not be swept under the rug or ignored. Remember The Second Mile nonprofit.

Step Five – Board Chair Puts Action on Board Meeting Agenda in Executive Session
Since you have indicated to the board member in question that you intend to vote and take action in the next meeting you should begin the meeting with an executive session.

The Board Chair will state simply and without malice the reason for the action and that the officers asked for a voluntary resignation which was not provided. An officer should make a motion up front. “I would like to make a motion to remove Mr. Smith from volunteer service on this board.” The board chair will ask for a second. Another officer should second the motion. The board chair will ask for any discussion on the matter. DO NOT let the discussion linger. Put a time limit on the discussion. Then call for the vote.

With most bylaws, via a majority vote of those in the room, if quorum has been met, the trustee is removed immediately from the board and asked to leave the room.

Ensure appropriate measures have been taken in advance if you expect any type of inappropriate or threatening behavior up to and including having security personal present.

NEW is not legal council and every situation is different. If at all concerned about your situation, contact an attorney to represent the nonprofit board in the matter.   Please reference the State of Michigan Corporation Act.

Benefits of Serving on a Nonprofit Board – From A Nonprofit Board Member

Diana Kern, NEW's Vice President of Programs

I’ve gained valuable perspective and made business contacts that help me every day in my job, my nonprofit work and in my personal life.  There is no question that board service has had a positive impact on both my career trajectory and my personal development.

For professionals who want to use their skills and passion to make an impact on a nonprofit organization, there are fantastic benefits to serving on a board:

  • Builds your skill set:  Hone the skills you currently possess while serving on a board whether you work in marketing, human resources or finance, and learn new skills that you can add to your CV/Resume and LinkedIn profile.
  • Grows your network: Meet and collaborate with other passionate and talented professionals while serving on a board and make key contacts for the future.
  • Builds your brand and the nonprofit’s brand: Not only will your professional brand get a boost from serving as a board member, but you can build awareness and endorsements for that nonprofit through your participation.
  • Makes you feel good for doing good: Building social capital will give you that burst of professional and personal inspiration you may be looking for, and there is nothing better than the feeling that you can put your skills to good use.

If you are interested in joining a nonprofit board there are many ways to find service.   I want to suggest however, that you find a cause that you can be passionate about.  Board work is hard work in many cases.  Here are places to look for service:

Written by Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs and Governance Goddess

Learn more about serving on a nonprofit board and what’s expected of board members.  Attend our “Serving on a Nonprofit Board Training” on Thursday, January 9 from 5-7 p.m. CLICK HERE to register.

Establishing Productive and Effective Advisory Councils for Nonprofits

Diana Kern, Vice President of Programs

Why establish an advisory council/group, board emeritus council, or other such non-governing body?  First, let’s talk about what these bodies are, or can do, for nonprofits.

What is an Advisory Council?  
An advisory council/group is usually a collection of individuals who bring unique knowledge and skills which complement the knowledge and skills of the formal board members in order to more effectively govern the organization. Advisory groups are sometimes formed to provide status to people, for example, retiring CEOs of the nonprofit, exiting board chairs, term-limited board members, or major contributors that have no desire to attend board meetings. Some people form Advisory Groups because they want “recognized names” in the community that they can add to their letterhead with hopes this will draw funds, but they put no formal requests of these people and do not really communicate well with them. Other Advisory Councils are formed to provide subject matter guidance to a nonprofit that might have a scientific or medical mission.  These Advisory Councils are just that, experts that help provide data, thoughts and support to the Executive Director and Board on a specific disease, medical condition or technology.

An advisory group does not have formal authority to govern the organization. Unless otherwise provided for in the bylaws it cannot issue directives which must be followed. Rather, the advisory group serves some purpose (or should), that is missing in any other governance structure.  The advisory group can be standing (or ongoing) or ad hoc (one-time) in nature.

Most governance experts will recommend that you avoid calling this non-governing body a “board.” There is only one fiduciary board and reserving that word for the governing body is best. Some advisory groups feel if they are bringing in the majority of the donations they should be able to make the decisions.  Your bylaws shouldclearly define what body governs the nonprofit.  Just because someone is the largest donor for a charity should not give them ultimate decision making over the mission.

Clarify What You Want From This Group
For Executive Directors/CEO’s and the Board of Directors you must first ask yourself what you desire from an advisory group.  What is your reason for wanting such a group?  You must have a clear objective for establishing this group and then its purpose must be clearly defined and communicated.   Too often the group ends up becoming a long list of names on the nonprofit’s letterhead of old board members, or “name recognition” people that do not even contribute to the organization financially or otherwise and the fiduciary board has little to no contact with these individuals. Is this really effective?  How will the nonprofit benefit from this type of structure?  How can advisory groups be ambassadors for the mission if they are never informed about outcomes and metrics?

Things Your Advisory Group Could Do
Good advisory groups are ones that:
• Have a passion for the mission of the nonprofit
• Are willing to be called upon for assistance with resource allocation, introductions to key people or will be advisors to the board or CEO
• Are willing to make a financial contribution to the nonprofit annually
• Will be ambassadors for the nonprofit in their circles of influence
• Are kept informed about key milestones, metrics or accomplishments so they can spread the word about the work of the nonprofit
• Don’t want to attend monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly board meetings, but are willing to attend one annual meeting a year…a State-of-the-State meeting where they can be educated, inspired and engage in discussion about vision and mission
• Serve a key “advisory” voice for medical conditions or diseases to help the nonprofit ensure their services and programs are helpful and effective and that the mission is the primary focus of the nonprofit.

Good boards will draft a charter for their Advisory Group and then ensure all trustees agree with the focus and function of the group.  Questions that are clarified in the charter are:
1. What will the size of the group be?
2. Will we have term-limits for this group?
3. Will the group have a chair person?
4. Will the group meet?
5. Who will be the staff liaison to this group?
6. What are the types of things they will be called upon to do?

Communication with Advisory Groups
Good boards and CEOs will make sure to support a communication plan with their advisory groups. Good boards know that they must keep their advisory members engaged and passionate about the mission while NOT burdening them with meetings or too many requests. You must be strategic about how you use them and how you honor them.  Ways to communicate with advisory members include:
• Including advisory group members on electronic communication lists for newsletters and event information
• A quarterly letter from the Board Chair and CEO about key activities or metrics meant to inform the member so they are educated and continue to feel inspired
• An annual meeting with the Advisory Group to thank them and educate them on the “state-of-the-state” of the nonprofit and to get their opinion on a key strategy or question facing the nonprofit
• Invitations, with personal notes from the Board Chair or CEO for key events

Before launching an advisory group or continuing with the one you have, be sure you have a clear objective in mind for the use of this group and how they will be engaged and communicated with.   Quality advisory groups can add a significant level of leadership and support for nonprofits.

Written by Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs for the May edition of  NEWs Notes.  Join Diana for the final session of our three-part Webinar series – “Making The Ask: Individuals & Corporations.”  Register here.

NEW Unveils Workshop on Building and Sustaining Diverse Boards

NEW (Nonprofit Enterprise at Work) is excited to announce a new BoardConnect workshop – “Towards a Culture of Inclusion: Building and Sustaining a Diverse Board.”  The workshop, the first in a series of three offered through our new “Catalysts for Change” program, will take place Tuesday, January 22 from 8am– 11am at the Hannan House in Detroit.  Additional offerings will include a two-part workshop titled “Cultural Fluency in the Boardroom.”

Nonprofit organizations are recognizing that to better serve their communities, they must include the representation and engagement of individuals with diverse identities across all lines of difference.  This workshop, developed and facilitated by Rosemary Linares, NEW’s Program Associate and Training Specialist, is designed to help nonprofit organizations meet these needs, recruit diverse Board members, create an environment that is inclusive and establish a diverse leadership pipeline.

Rosemary Linares, NEW's Program Associate and Training Specialist

“For many years the for-profit sector has embraced the values of diversity and inclusion as a way to strengthen the bottom line, particularly as the demographics of our country are rapidly changing,” says Linares.  “It’s time for nonprofit leaders to intentionally expand and deepen the impact of these values across our sector, in order to foster innovation and sustainability, as well as effectively advance our charitable missions. We designed this workshop to share our tools and resources with nonprofit board members throughout Southeast Michigan.”

In preparation for this workshop, Linares incorporated data from national reports on nonprofit board diversity, as well as findings from the statewide Transforming Michigan Philanthropy through Diversity and Inclusion Initiative, spearheaded by the Council of Michigan Foundations.

Attendees will review nonprofit board diversity trends, learn how to examine barriers of diversity, inclusion and equity within their organizations, as well as learn how to develop a diversity and inclusion action plan.

“NEW is excited to add another component to its governance training.  We have found that most charity boards want to embrace a diversity of volunteer talent, but they don’t always know how to approach the conversation or put a meaningful plan into action,” says Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs.  “As with all our consulting and training offerings, we are taking a hands-on, realistic approach, and see this diversity and inclusion training as one more tool in our toolkit in helping nonprofit boards be the best they can be.”

Before joining NEW, Linares launched Cross Movement Social Justice Consulting, L3C, to advance social justice by increasing the capacity of nonprofit organizations and building alliances across movements.  She currently serves on the board of Detroit Latin@z, the Washtenaw County Pride Picnic Planning Committee and is a Community Engagement Co-Planner with the Understanding Race Project in Washtenaw County, in conjunction with the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.

The cost of the workshop is $75 per person and includes breakfast. Register here!

See additional program information in the January edition of NewsNotes.


What is Founder’s Syndrome and How Should Boards and the Founders Handle It?

A founder is a single individual or a small group of individuals, who bring an organization through tough times (e.g., a start-up, a growth spurt, a financial collapse). Often these sorts of situations require a strong passionate personality—someone who can make fast decisions and motivate people to action. Founders often invest significant time and money into the nonprofit. They are used to being very hands-on and drivers of programming and service delivery. But the question is how to move successfully past the founder stage? How can the stakeholders of an organization ensure sustainability of the nonprofit and the mission when the founder continues to play a role while the organization grows and changes?

Just like start-up for-profit businesses, nonprofits require flexibility as the needs for making decisions in the organization change. They need to implement mechanisms for shared responsibility and authority. It is when those decision-making mechanisms do not change while the organization grows that “Founder’s Syndrome” becomes an issue. We see this most frequently with organizations that have grown from a mom-and-pop operation to a $2-10 million community powerhouse, and decisions are still made as if the founders were gathered around someone’s living room. Founder’s Syndrome isn’t necessarily about the actual founder of an organization. The central figure could be the person who took over from the founder. It could be someone who took over in a time of crisis, and led the organization to clear waters. It could be a demonstrative board member there from the beginning who does not recognize the need for changing roles. Or, it could just be someone who has been at the helm forever. It could the person that “birthed” the nonprofit and holds tremendous passion for the mission and possibly has significant personal and financial investment. In other words it could the person to whom everyone seems to defer to out of respect or because this person still holds the purse strings.

Regardless, it is very important for individuals in leadership roles to understand this place in the nonprofit’s lifecycle and lead it to sustainable governance.

What Founder’s Syndrome Could Look Like

Founder’s syndrome decisions often are not made strategically. Usually decisions are simply made by the “Founder.” All other parties merely rubber stamp what the founder suggests. There is generally strong resistance to any change in decision-making, where the Founder might lose his/her total control of the organization. Boards of these organizations usually do not govern, rather they “approve” what the founder suggests. Planning is not done collectively, but by the founder. And plans/ideas that do NOT come from the founder usually do not go very far. In other words, regardless of the size of the organization, everyone who is NOT the Founder is relegated to the role of support staff to the Founder. (If you ever hear a board say, “Our board’s role is just to support the CEO,” that is one of many classic signals that Founder’s Syndrome is likely at play.)

Some may ask, “So what’s wrong with that?” And the answer is simple: If the “Founder” is hit by a meteor tomorrow, the organization is not sustainable, and all the good work the organization has done over the years is in danger of screeching to a halt. This threat occurs because organizations facing Founder’s Syndrome usually have little infrastructure in place because it simply has not been needed. In these situations, the founder IS the infrastructure!

What Founders Need to Know

Once you have birthed it, it is no longer your baby. Just as it is with our own children, once they are born, they are their own people. We can guide our children, teach them, nurture them—but our son or daughter is a person in his/her own right. The same goes for “our” organization. It’s not ours. It is its own thing. We don’t own it. In fact, legally, a 501C3 is owned by the stakeholders.

Once you give a gift, it’s no longer yours. You have created this amazing gift for your community. Now that it is used and depended upon by others—now that you have given this gift to the community, it is no longer yours. It belongs to the community. That’s the definition of a gift.

From these two facts—that the organization is a being in its own right, and that that being belongs to the community, not the founding member—come a number of other facts many founders may hesitate to face.

    1. Along with the decision to bring a child into the world comes the responsibility to raise it to live independently. We all know the old adage “nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Well, the part we do not like to admit to ourselves is that there is another certainty associated with the “death” part—and that is that none of us knows exactly when our day will come. Because we know we are not going to live forever, and we cannot know if our last day will be tomorrow or 50 years from now, it is irresponsible to run our organizations as if we will, in fact, be around forever. It is simply not fair to the organization, or to those who benefit from the work we do. The only responsible approach, therefore, is to raise this child to NOT need us.


    1. The world doesn’t owe you anything for having founded your organization. We gave up our lives to create the organization we founded. We went without sleep, sweated, cried and bled for this organization, and in some cases, even went into debt. But the sad truth is that nobody owes us anything for doing that. We did it because we cared. Regardless of which metaphor you use—that of having a child, or that of giving a gift—neither of them provides for a payback. Our “payback” in having children is in seeing them grow and take on the world on their own. And our “payback” for giving a gift is in seeing how happy the recipient is to use that gift, hopefully for a long, long time.


    1. It’s not about you. Harsh, but true. It is hard sometimes to acknowledge that regardless of how much we put into nurturing the organization we founded, in the long run, none of that really matters. It is not about our emotional needs—regardless of what those are. It is not about what we have sacrificed to make it all work, or the recognition and gratitude we think we should get. It is about the community—which is why we created this gift in the first place. If we have not prepared the organization to survive (and dare I say thrive?) without our presence and we cannot even think of leaving, as the organization would crumble without us, then we have somehow made it about us, rather than about the community.


  1. Your vision isn’t nearly as important as the organization’s vision and the community’s vision. Yes, it was our vision that founded the organization in the first place. But as the organization grows and matures, that vision may not be all there is. The ability for the organization to dramatically affect the community may be far larger than the vision we had when we first opened the doors. Doing things the way they have always been done, and thinking the way things have always been thought is not necessarily the best thing for the organization, nor for the community it serves. It is simply what WE would do. So if we fear the vision would change if we weren’t there, perhaps it’s time to let it evolve while we are still present. In the first year after birth it is time to revisit the mission and the vision. What does the community want from us and what is missing in the community as it pertains to the importance of the work?

So What is a Founder To Do?

First, if you are the founder of a brand new organization and you are just starting out, build it right. Build it to be sustainable for the future. Build it as if you won’t be there to see it through its life. Think about the future while you are creating the organization’s present.

If, however, the organization is an older one, and it and you have become inextricably entwined, then there is work to be done. Some of that work is organizational. Some is personal.

Let’s start with the personal side:

    1. Acknowledge that some day, the split will happen. The only way to ensure that your legacy is an organization that serves the community long after you are gone is to acknowledge, right now, that you cannot be there forever—and that you never know when that “forever” will occur. Take that to heart and be conscious of it as you plan for your organization’s future, and you will likely put the needed tools in place to survive you. If however you keep a sense of entitlement or make others around you think you deserve entitlement as the founder, then you will have trust problems and you will risk the organizational health of the nonprofit. Do not surround yourself with “yes” people. You need workers and you need people who will debate openly with you for the good of the organization.


  1. Get help. Find a professional coach who can help you work out the personal aspects of your eventual separation from the organization, even if you are not going anywhere but are just thinking about ensuring the organization is ready in the event you do. This is especially important for those of you who do not believe you have Founder’s Syndrome, but have heard it whispered.

On the organizational side:

    1. A healthy organization starts with a healthy board. Whether you are a board member or the CEO, if the board as a whole is depending on you for everything from the organization’s vision to the connection to the community, then it is time to begin developing, training and restructuring your board to lead the organization. This will likely take some very strategic recruiting efforts as well—because there is a good chance many of the existing board members were hand-picked by you! (That’s all part of the syndrome.) If the organization is to thrive into the next decade and further, the board will have to understand its role at the top of the organizational chart, and it will have to be populated by people who want to do that job. It is time to really look at governance structures that will allow for sustainability.


    1. Codify the vision and values that are at the heart of the organization. Create a working credo that will guide both the board’s future decisions and those made by the staff. There is nothing to say that the credo won’t evolve over time– it likely will. But the core of what is important will remain, and that will be another part of your legacy. Do not disregard the importance of organizational values.


    1. Create a succession plan that proactively deals with all the things you (or the board) fear might happen when you leave.
      • Are they afraid that you have been the link to the community, the public image of the organization? Then determine a way to proactively deal with that—perhaps creating a speakers bureau or PR committee.
      • Are they afraid that most of the institutional memory of the organization resides inside your head? Then find a way to proactively deal with that—perhaps by committing that knowledge to paper or video.
      • Are they afraid that you have been the best fundraiser they could dream of? Then find a proactive way to deal with that—perhaps by developing an army of development volunteers with a passion for the mission or a board that understands that 50% of their role will be ambassadorship and fundraising.

      Whatever the fear, make sure your succession plan deals with it proactively to ensure the viability of the organization for the long term. While the main focus of this plan will be succession, the ancillary benefit is that you will be building organizational infrastructure. And that will provide benefit immediately.


    1. As part of your succession plan, train someone now who could replace you, even temporarily, in the event something happens to you. This doesn’t mean you are going anywhere soon. You may not be leaving for another 10 years! But if the whole organization relies on you for its survival, and you really are hit by a meteor tomorrow, then what will happen? Find someone you can share your institutional knowledge with, and train them to share the load now, while you still can.


  1. When you leave, do not plan to stay on the board of directors. If you move to a governing role on the board, the new CEO/Executive Director will never be able to get out from under your shadow and you run the risk that board members and others will continue to defer to you. You should move out of the way and let the new culture be created.


All nonprofits have a “start-up” phase. If you are in it now and you are reading this article, then you can start to build sustainability with a clear understanding of “Founders Syndrome” and all of the components it entails. For the beginning leadership group, do not rush the process; make sure to embrace achieving clarity of mission, vision, governance structures and norms. Yes, they will change over time, but just like children need to go to school to learn, nonprofit founders and boards need to adapt to change, while learning about best practices for sustainability and high impact.


Written by Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs, for the December edition of NEW’s Notes.  Diana has a commitment to board governance and strong nonprofits.  She is considered an expert in nonprofit board dynamics and governance.

Check out other stories in this month’s NEW’s Notes here.

Last week we read about lifelong donors and the importance of cultivating such a donor base.  This week, we continue the conversation with resident resource specialist, Ann Gladwin about relationships and the secret to building them:

The Story

I had a nice chat with Marshall Howard the other day.  His book “Let’s Have Lunch Together” has been instrumental in my take on fundraising–though Mr. Howard still had to set me straight about the story.   The story is me, not the mission of the organization. That’s hard for most of us to grasp; we want to extol the virtues of our nonprofit’s impact on the community:  Look at the great strides we’re making… the number of people served!  According to Mr. Howard, this ‘story’ might rate a 6 out of 10–what about the remaining 4? 

I started to understand that it’s my relationship to the person I’m asking for support that is crucial.  Do they connect with the mission?  Perhaps, but it’s the fact that I asked them that is important.  And they are responding to me; I can ask a stranger for a donation to my cause, but I’m not likely to get results no matter for what I’m asking.  Ask someone I know for support?  Much more likely. 

Wow – that’s powerful!

Real Life Example

Mark Zuckerberg’s gift to Newark, New Jersey public schools serves as a real life example for this theory.   

Mr. Zuckerberg, 26, who grew up in Westchester County and now lives in California, has no particular connection to Newark. But in July, he and Mr. Booker met at a conference and began a continuing conversation about the mayor’s plans for the city, according to people familiar with their relationship.

From The New York Times

There’s that key word again, relationship.  I would treat it as a synonym for success.  

Get Connected

Another proponent of relationship building is Terry Axelrod, founder of Benevon (and guest writer on our blog last week).  She will present a Get Connected workshop for NEW in Detroit on Wednesday, April 27 (9am-10:30am).  This “Relationship Building for Fundraising” is yours to attend for free.  Sign up today!

Also visit Marshall Howard.com to find a multitude of free resources, including his blog. Get a fresh look at a tried and true method for bringing people into your organization.   


Ann Gladwin is Resource Specialist for Nonprofit Enterprise at Work at our Ann Arbor office.  Feel free to contact Ann regarding any of the advice, tools or service mentioned in this post by email at agladwin@new.org or via phone at 734-998-0160 ext. 218.

You can contact Ann with questions on any aspect of nonprofit management.  Call for an appointment to use the Foundation Directory Online at either the Ann Arbor or Detroit office of NEW.

About NEW
NEW’s mission is to help nonprofits succeed by strengthening nonprofit management and offering solutions to issues facing our nonprofit community.

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By Diana Kern, Vice President of NEW

My favorite line in the nonprofit world is, “If you’ve seen one nonprofit board, you’ve seen one nonprofit board.”  Having served on many nonprofit boards and working with over 50 boards a year in southeast Michigan I see a lot of variations.  Depending on the mission, the board chair, the revenue situation, the strength of the board’s committees and many other assorted factors, I witness effective and productive boards, unengaged and completely detached boards, and all types in between.


Boards that stand out for me are ones that:

  • Have board chairs that create cultures of accountability (meeting attendance, committee work, returning emails, etc.)
  • Have passion for the mission
  • Partner with their top executive and think about ways to relieve pressure from that person
  • Make a meaningful, unrestricted annual donation
  • Are real ambassadors for the services, programs and mission of the nonprofit in their personal spheres of influence
  • Focus on their own productivity, succession and ability to affect mission accomplishment
  • Embrace training and education

What Area Executive Directors Say

In 2009 I engaged in an informal survey of executive directors in southeast Michigan.  I asked them, “Besides fundraising, what is the most important thing you need from your board members today.” Keeping in mind this was at the height of the recession and all of executive directors I spoke to wanted boards that would embrace fundraising, what I heard was really interesting.


They ranked their top three needs in the following order:

  • Passion for the mission
  • Be engaged (come to meetings, read your board packet before you come, provide vision)
  • Be an ambassador


In some cases I had executive directors tell me in confidence that they work around their boards because they provide no real value to mission.   I also had executive directors that are burned out from having to lead their boards through every step.   Sadly, I had many tell me that many of their board members do not even make a personal annual gift to the nonprofit.

Board’s rank a C+

The BoardSource Nonprofit Governance Index 2010, a survey of approximately 1,750 nonprofits from across the country, reported that chief executives give their boards a C+ on overall performance.  I don’t know about you, but if I ever came home with a C+ I would have had to spend evenings and weekends hitting the books!  Where did board members get the most failing grades?   They got poor marks for commitment, engagement and attendance, being ambassadors in the community, engaging in their own self-assessments, recruiting their own peers (building succession for the board) and of course, fundraising.  Interestingly, this national study mirrored my informal responses from southeast Michigan.

[The full report can be downloaded here ]

If you think about it, many of us have professions that require continuing education classes annually so we can continue to be at the top of our games.  However, to be a nonprofit board member you can just move from one board to the next, year after year, with no training.  You might have no idea what it means to be a good board member, what the best practices are today for boards or what the IRS and others are suggesting supports quality governance and transparency yet you could be responsible for oversight of thousands or millions of donor dollars.


Board Members Ask Yourself a Question

As a board member myself, I try to focus on how I can add value.   How do I add value to the board and how do I add value to the executive director?  Showing up to a meeting once a month, signing a conflict of interest statement, and writing a $100 check every year is not the behavior of quality board member in my opinion.    I also focus on avoiding micromanaging but I embrace my role as gatekeeper of the mission with the oversight requirements necessary.


The BoardSource Index also reported that 70% of nonprofit boards now have term limits.  I am a firm believer in terms limits, but that is a story for an entire other blog on another day.   However, when I join a board and I know that I have six years maximum to provide service I ask my self this question. “When I leave this board in six years can I leave knowing I left the nonprofit and board in a better position than when I got there?”  If I can’t, I think long and hard about accepting the volunteer role.   Being a board member today involves some heavy lifting if you take the role seriously.



Diana Kern is the Vice President at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work.  Diana received the Randolph W. White Memorial Award for Community Service in 2003 for her dedication to ser ving the housing community and she is a certified trainer with the Institute of Real Estate Management.   Feel free to contact Diana regarding any of the advice, tools or services mentioned in this post by email at dkern@new.org or via phone at 734-998-0160 extension 230

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NEW’s mission is to help nonprofits succeed by strengthening nonprofit management and offering solutions to issues facing our nonprofit community.

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You Can Change the World

by Diana Kern, VP of Programs for NEW

People I talk with understand how tough things are for many individuals, families and nonprofits in southeast Michigan, but they aren’t sure how they can help. When I suggest they volunteer for a local nonprofit they immediately think about volunteering for a single event, like collecting food, walking dogs at the shelter, or participating in a walk/run to raise money for a cause. These things are great and nonprofits need this type of help, but for those able to make a little bigger commitment, serving on a nonprofit committee or board is way to make a big impact!

There are over 20,000 charitable nonprofits in southeast Michigan, all with a boards and several committees. Community members who are willing to turn off Dancing With the Stars will likely find enough time on their hands to serve well on one of these boards or committees.

If you have never served in this capacity before, talk with people who have. They can share their experience with you. You can also talk to NEW. We can help you navigate this experience and make sure it is as meaningful for you as it will be for the nonprofit.

NEW also offers workshops that teach individuals about nonprofit board service. See below for upcoming dates and locations.

Your brain is needed just as much as your hands. As Margaret Mead shared with us, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.

Serving on a Nonprofit Board
Wednesday, May 27 | 3pm-6pm at the Chesterfield Township Library, 50560 Patricia Ave., Chesterfield, MI

Thursday, June 18 | 1pm-4pm at the NEW Center, 1100 N. Main, Ann Arbor

For community members interested in serving on a nonprofit board. Learn More. $55 per person, $40 for Detroit Regional Chamber Members, Michigan Nonprofit Association Members & Leadership Oakland Members.  Register now and save $5

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