Working for boards is tough stuff

We all have friends who work for bosses who are absolute nightmares. As a matter of fact, I was on a business trip a few months ago driving in my rental car  listening to a call-in  radio program all about horrible boss stories. While I sympathize with friends in those situations, I can honestly say they have no idea what real workplace pain is like until they’ve had to work for a cantankerous non-profit board of directors.

I believe in my heart of hearts that working for a board has got to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my life. Here are just a few reasons I’ve come to this conclusion:

  • If a board has 15 members, then the non-profit CEO is working for 15 different people.
  • 15 different board volunteers have 15 different personalities.
  • 15 different board volunteers can have 15 different ways of wanting to do something.
  • Have you ever tried to appease 15 different egos? OMG

Don’t get me wrong . . . working directly for a board has also yielded some of the best experiences in my life. However, I’ve seen too many of my non-profit friends reduced to a puddle of tears recently as a result of “politics” in the board room and “personal agendas” run amok.

So what is the solution? Where is the silver bullet? What can a non-profit professional do to make working with a board of directors less difficult?

Let me start by saying: not everyone is cut out for this kind of work. So, get your feet wet early in your career possibly by helping your agency’s CEO with a board project. Take this time to assess whether or not you like it not. If it doesn’t feel right, then chalk it up to a learning experience and decline future opportunities to interview for non-profit executive leadership jobs.

If you currently sit in the big chair and are looking for tips on how to work with boards more effectively, then here are just a few quick thoughts:

  1. Get in front of your board volunteers regularly. If you are just seeing your board members at monthly board meetings, then you’re doing yourself a tremendous disservice. Set a goal of being in front of every board member at least once in between board meetings (and I go back on forth on whether or not committee meetings count). During these meetings, do more listening than you do talking. Gandhi told us to be the change we want to see in the world. So, if you want the board to listen to you, then you better listen to them.
  2. Respect boundaries. Too many of us want to befriend our board members, and I think this blurs boundaries. These people are your boss. Being social is one thing, but partying all night with them might cross a line. Establishing boundaries is tough stuff, but they always need to see you as a classy professional. These people can become part of your “extended non-profit family,” but never forget how dysfunctional families can get. Are you sure you want to bring “dysfunction” into your employment situation? Carefully thinking through boundaries makes a lot of sense to me and it will probably look different for each of you.
  3. Use planning tools to build consensus. There is nothing more challenging than having to work with 15 people who have 15 different ideas about how to do something. So, a good non-profit leader needs to possess “consensus building” and “facilitating” skill sets. If these are things they are good at doing, then their leadership toolbox needs to include planning strategies and tactics. Guiding a divided board through a strategic planning, resource development planning or marketing plan process can produce consensus and direction. Ahhhhh . . . happy days!
  4. Get serious about every part of your board development process. Approach board building like you would a chemistry experiment.

What do you believe is the most difficult thing about working for a board of directors? What strategies do you use to help make this a little easier?

Please share your thoughts using the comment box below because we can all learn from each other.

Here is to your health!

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


  1. Erik,
    I appreciate this post, I think developing the skills to manage a board of directors is key to the success of any executive director. One of my former bosses shared his view with me once, he said that collectively the board of directors is the boss of the ED (and can hire and fire), but individually they are just members of the board (and no one person can hire or fire the ED), and that same principle applies to other board activities… I think it is important to make that distinction and provide appropriate training so board members are aware of their role, both as an individual board member and collectively as the entire board of directors.

    1. Sarah — sorry for taking too long to get to your comment. I’ve been on the road the last three days with poor connectivity. I love what you former executive director’s said about working for boards. You are also right on target about board training related to roles and responsibilities for board volunteers. HOWEVER, I’ve seen CEOs put a check next to that box and forget that board are “organic” entities and change over time. So, doing the roles/responsibilities training once never cuts it because there is a constant influx of new people. Additionally, people tend to forget training objectives as time passes and refresher courses become necessary (of couse, no one ever agrees with this).

      Complex and fun! Thanks for weigh-in.


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