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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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A Board Member Crosses the Line
Jan Masaoka

October, 2012

Dear Blue Avocado: I'm the chair of a nonprofit board and I have a problem. We recently voted to support a local measure that would change some zoning regulations in our county. This board member -- I'll call him "Joe" -- was outvoted (he was the only one to vote against it). The staff wrote up our position and put it on our website. Now Joe won't stop emailing the staff and telling them to change a sentence or add something or even to take it down. The staff is spending hours talking with him on the phone about it. What do I do?

Dear Board Chair:

You already know that you have to stop his behavior. The question is how.

You need to send two clear messages: one to Joe and one to the staff. In a phone call followed up with an email, let Joe know the following:

  • Individual board members can make suggestions to the executive director, but they can't direct staff work. The board -- acting as a whole -- can direct staff work, but not individual board members.
  • If Joe would like the content of something on the website reviewed by the board for appropriateness, you would be willing to bring the matter to the next board meeting.
  • You have instructed the executive director to let the staff know they are to refer any requests by board members to me, the board chair.
  • Let Joe know that you and other board members value his participation (if that's true), but that, in this instance, he is acting as if he were representing the full board, not just himself. Add that if he disagrees with the decision of the board, he can ask that it be brought up again at the next board meeting. However, majority rules.
  • In a phone call or email with the executive director, be sure the following points are clear:
    ** Tell staff that if individual board members --- not only Joe -- ask them to undertake work, staff should say that they have been instructed to refer such requests to the board chair. Staff cannot be expected to take direction from individual board members; chaos would result.
    ** If Joe asks you -- the executive director -- to undertake particular tasks -- remind him gently that you report to the board, not to each individual board member. You can suggest that either he or you ask me to have the item placed on the board agenda.

But what if Joe says, "I'm not acting as a board member! I'm acting as a concerned citizen of this county"? You probably know how to respond: we welcome comments from all concerned citizens, and such comments should and will be brought to our board where the decision was made.

Having these conversations with Joe won't be easy or fun. You may be thinking something like, "I didn't volunteer to be on this board to have people acting out on me!" But that's what leadership is: responding appropriately to whatever comes up and using the moment to set a tone of respect, integrity, and accountability. Go for it.

See also in Blue Avocado:

Jan Masaoka is the publisher of Blue Avocado and the author of Best of the Board Cafe Second Edition, which compiles dozens of short, practical articles about boards -- grounded in an unconventional framework. She has been in the shoes of both this board member and a board member acting out, she's sorry to say.


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