June 17, 2024

Toxic Nonprofit Board Behavior: How to Expose Hidden Agendas

Is your nonprofit board being undermined by a boardroom bully, or bullies, or hidden agendas?

Discover how to identify and tackle “The Meeting Before the Meeting”–a bully tactic–to foster transparency and collaboration.

In this video, explore:

  • The impact of hidden agendas on board effectiveness.
  • How pre-meeting decisions discourage open dialogue and participation.
  • Recognizing the signs of “small circle collusion.”
  • Practical solutions for empowering your board members and changing toxic culture.


  1. Identify the Signs. Learn to spot non-verbal cues, dismissal tactics, and disengaged members that indicate pre-meeting decisions.
  2. Empower Your Board: Understand the importance of empowering all members to call out bad behavior and create a self-regulating environment.
  3. Practical Steps: Implement meeting norms, boost openness, and deal with difficult members effectively.

Build a more engaged and transparent nonprofit board. Don’t forget to subscribe for more insights and share your experiences in the comments. How have you addressed hidden agendas in your board?


Have you ever walked into a board meeting only to find that the decisions have already been made?

If so, you may be dealing with the “meeting before the meeting.” Hidden agendas and pre-meeting decisions can create toxic cultures, drive down board effectiveness, and reduce board engagement. How do they do that? They discourage open dialogue and participation of all board members. They reduce transparency and trust. Finally, they drive down the quality of decisions. You’re not hearing all the voices, you’re not getting the wisdom in the room. But there’s hope! By naming and acting on hidden agendas, you can move towards greater board engagement, improved decisions, and less frustration.

The meeting before the meeting occurs when a subset of board members meet and discuss an issue, deciding the outcome before the official board meeting. This is also known as “small circle collusion.” The goal is to control the outcome of the decision, and it is a hidden agenda.

Besides predetermined outcomes, what does the meeting before the meeting and hidden agendas look like?

  1. You have non-verbal cues: They may enter together, they may sit close, there may be side conversations in the clique and in my experience, also that there’s a smugness about them, a sense of “we got this, stop. Stop bothering.”
  2. The next sign is dismissal tactics: Anything that’s said off-track against what they’re saying is quickly dismissed and shot down as being a terrible idea. When you’re experiencing the hidden agenda with talking points already predetermined coming at you, to be dramatic, it’s like being in a firing squad. You got all this stuff coming at you, you can’t figure out where it’s coming from. It’s not a dialogue, it’s not a conversation, it’s like being pinged with things.
  3. This leads to the third thing: The people who are not part of the small group collusion are often confused and anxious, like “what’s going on here? I don’t understand this,” and they often then withdraw to watch and become silent. So, unfortunately, you’re seeing possible hidden agendas at your board meeting.

How can you stop it?

You have two approaches: The first is removing the board members, and the second is empowering other board members to call out toxic behavior. Removing or waiting out the term of members with toxic behavior can be effective, but it also can be stressful and destructive.

The other alternative is well worth considering. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s really helpful long-term to change how your board functions and it prevents future toxicity. And that is, empowering your board members to take action when toxic behaviors present themselves. This second approach has several advantages:

  • The board becomes more self-regulating, taking the burden off the CEO and the board chair.
  • It is also less likely to cause a blowup and be disruptive.
  • Finally, it is the happier longer term solution. By changing how your board functions, reduces the odds of people grabbing power in this way.

So how will you handle this? Here are some practical steps. I have three categories:

  • The first is meeting norms and behaviors:
    • Establish meeting rules: What would our behavior look like? How should we behave in meetings? These give you guidelines to go back to when things start going a muck.
    • Secondly, help people to know that they can use the phrase “I’d like to make a point of order” when they see maybe that a meeting guideline or a value anything seems to be a miss in the meeting. This is the time we would stop in the meeting to say okay, what is it, and discuss it.
  • The second category is boosting openness and inclusion:
    • One option is to change who speaks first in the speaking order. You could go with new members, you could go with people who are more quiet, you could switch back and forth across the room numerous ways to do that all about hearing all the voices and keeping the meeting open to a real conversation.
    • The second area of boosting this openness and inclusion is board training. Lots of activities and opportunities there, about what it means to be a good board member what bad board behaviors look like.
    • Finally, leading by example: The CEO and chair should and can lead by example with transparency and an openness and desire to include every member in the decision. That can be very effective. “We are now going to do a round, everyone give their opinion in a very short phrase because we want to make sure all voices have been heard.”
  • The third category of activities is dealing with the difficult board members:
    • You start with informal pulling them aside and having a conversation about the impact of what they’re doing is having on your board.
    • Secondly is your formal process.

Hidden agendas breed frustrations and disrupt progress. But when diagnosed you can find healthy collaboration and game changing impact. Subscribe for more on building a healthy nonprofit board and share your experience. How have hidden agenda impacted your board meetings?

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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