June 26, 2024

Transform Toxic Board Behaviors: A Nonprofit CEO’s Guide

Dealing with toxic board members can leave CEOs feeling on edge, drained, and powerless. Many nonprofit CEOs struggle with board members who resist new ideas and create conflict. Vu Le believes that one-third of nonprofit boards are harmful.

I developed a strategy to navigate these challenges and improve board health. This article provides actionable steps to deal with toxic board members. (Confused if you’re dealing with toxic vs difficult behavior? See this post.)

❌ The Classic Approach: Epic Fail

Typical responses like offering training or tolerating lousy behavior don’t work and can even jeopardize the CEO’s job.

Your New Approach

Instead of fixing or tolerating bullies, empower those who value professional behavior. Work with the entire board or as many members as are willing. Over time, this approach improves the board’s culture and provides immunity to future toxicity.

Tactics to Turn Toxicity into Strategic Opportunities

Empower Respectful Members

Build a coalition and encourage board members to support each other. Affirm their contributions during meetings.

Why this works: Meetings improve when members feel supported and empowered to speak up.

Next steps: Identify a board champion to promote inclusive discussions.

“Remember the inmates (i.e., board members) run the prison. The deeper problem is that the members of the team do not support each other.” Adapted from Peter Block

️Promote Collective Decision Making

Guide discussions to ensure the board hears all voices. Implement structured decision-making processes.

Why this works: Structured discussions lead to better, collective decisions.

How to start: Design meetings so everyone has a chance to speak.

Require Professional Behavior

Establish and communicate expectations for board conduct. Address toxic behaviors immediately.

Why this works: Setting and defending boundaries creates a united front.

Get started: Plan responses and consequences for when boundaries get crossed.

“Change depends on ordinary people who have the courage to say, ‘Enough is enough and no more.”

Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director at Greenpeace International

Focus on the Nonprofit’s Work

Incorporate mission, vision, and values into every meeting. Use these to set the tone and focus.

Why this works: Reminders of the mission shift mindsets toward the nonprofit’s goals.

Do it: Pick a focus document, paragraph, or value for the next meeting and decide how the board will interact with it.

Mini Case Study: Overcoming Resistance

A long-standing board member, Larry, resisted hiring a COO, delaying discussions for six months. The CEO called me in to address this challenge. By empowering respectful board members and promoting collective decision-making, we overcame Larry’s resistance and successfully moved forward with the hiring process.

During a follow-up check-in six months later, though Larry was still adamant about everything, the board listened but didn’t let him dominate the room.

Key Takeaways

1. Recognize the Signs: Understand the impact of toxic board members.
2. Avoid Common Pitfalls: Don’t try to “fix” individuals or tolerate toxic behavior.
3. Adopt a New Strategy: Empower respectful members and create a zero-tolerance culture.
4. Immediate Actions: Act now to promote a healthy board.

“Abandon Hope All Who Enter Here?”
During my first permanent position, we had two toxic board members. One confronted me in the parking lot after a meeting. I calmly disagreed and shared my position. He stepped back and seemed to shrink. I was shocked then and still am—by the power of words.

You can lead your nonprofit board to better health and better serve your organization. Please get in touch with me for more personalized advice or to discuss implementing these strategies.

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.


If you appreciate these Added Value posts, please consider subscribing.

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Karen Eber Davis Consulting. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Latest Posts