Birds of a feather meets angry non-profit birds

Yesterday, my post was more of a question than anything else. I hoped you would join me in wondering if most board development processes really just result in boards replicating themselves. For example, a board full of middle management white-collar employees will beget more of the same. I ended the post with more questions focused on the idea of board transformation and asked if anyone has ever seen this done effectively.

After writing yesterday’s post, I jumped in my car and started a multi-day business trip. At my first stop, I had the pleasure of being able to continue this discussion about: bird of a feather flock together, boards replicating themselves, board transformation, and other board development approaches.

It was a robust discussion, and it reminded me of why I love non-profit work. Here are just a few things that popped out of that discussion yesterday:

  • there is no doubt that boards replicate themselves,
  • birds of a feather do indeed flock together, and
  • board transformation (whatever that may look like) needs to be managed very carefully to avoid hurt feelings and damaged donor relationships.

All of this got me thinking about situations where I’ve worked with a blended board of directors. What I mean by “blended board” is a group of volunteers who come from significantly different social circles, groups, sectors, etc.

It exists . . . in fact many non-profits are actually pursuing this idea all in the name of “board diversity.”

I am specifically thinking of one organization who I’ve worked with, and their board room contains:

  • a few CEOs and big business people,
  • one or two blue-collar construction folks,
  • a few country club wives,
  • a handful of middle managers, and
  • a former client.

So, you’re probably still wondering what inspired the title of this morning’s post. Simply stated, the “birds of a feather” refers to yesterday’s post, and the “angry birds” reference is a cautionary tale for non-profits who are aggressively pursuing the idea of blended boards and diversity.

When you have a blended boardroom, there are two big things that I think executive directors need to be on the look-out for:

Avoid board segmentation

I’ve seen blended boards where the “business people” and “folks with tons of influence” take on certain responsibilities (e.g. fundraising) and let others off the hook.

Here is what I’ve seen when blended boards segment themselves into “those who can” and “those who can’t”:

  • resentment
  • exhaustion
  • confusion
  • condescension

Every road leads to a bad place, and I’ve never seen it end well.

Avoid volunteer alienation

I’ve seen blended boards who work very hard at maintaining uniformity in expectations, roles, and responsibilities. So, the “CEO-type of board member” is held to the same standard as the “stay at home mom on the board”.

While this might sound “fair” to some of you, I assure you that this road is equally ugly. Here is what I’ve seen in these situations:

  • feelings of inadequacy
  • feelings of incompetence
  • finger-pointing
  • excuse making
  • under-performance

What I’m trying to say this morning is that if you are one of those non-profit professionals who actively fights against the “birds of a feather flock together” phenomenon, then you need to also be on the lookout for “angry non-profit birds” syndrome.

Here are just a few quick thoughts in my head for my non-profit executive directors friends out there:

  • Make sure your board recruitment process is followed. You are the guardian of process at your organization. Resist board members requests that sound like: “Awww, let’s just ask Betty to join the board. You know she’s perfect. Let’s just cut a few corners in the process.”
  • Make sure that your board development process educates prospective board volunteers on roles, responsibilities, and expectations BEFORE asking them to join anything.
  • Make sure your board development process includes regular doses of “education and training”. Using small training modules in the board room and infusing training into annual campaign kickoff meetings and board retreats ensures your board volunteers are growing.
  • Manage relationships. When you see board volunteers struggling, don’t look the other way. You can either personally engage and provide coaching to a struggling board volunteer or you can employ other board volunteers to provide that coaching. The end result might look different in every situation with some volunteers growing into their board roles and others finding other more comfortable seats on the bus that don’t involve serving on the board.
  • Don’t set people up for failure. If someone is a bad fit for the board, don’t ask them to join just because they have a large checkbook.  There is no shame in asking someone to sit that is a better fit for their talents and passions.

Do you have a blended board with lots of diversity? How do you manage it? How have you kept it from splintering into “us” and “them”? How have you kept individual volunteers from feeling out-of-place or like they aren’t pulling their weight? Please scroll down and share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

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


  1. Just my initial thoughts on your questions…Keep volunteers focused on the mission as it creates a common ground for all. Value diversity. Value the individual strengths of each member. Create a safe atmosphere for people to share without being judged. It’s all in the climate/culture of the board and it starts with board leadership.

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