Nonprofit board members: the good, the bad, the ugly

Susan Lebbon, BridgeTower Media Newswires

The demand for volunteer nonprofit board members to lead, manage and govern this industry has never been higher. However, nonprofits must perform their due diligence and professional care when recruiting board members, because a board that doesn’t work well together can have disastrous consequences for an organization.


The Good

Good board members are engaged, accountable, passionate and knowledgeable about the organization’s mission. They come from diverse backgrounds, have different skill sets and work together as a team; they promote the organization, are community ambassadors and engage to foster relationships with donors and supporters of the cause. They are responsive and show up to meetings and events. They are educated in the ways of nonprofit governance, and they ideally possess a skill set the organization needs (such as a CPA, Attorney, or investment advisor) or have connections that are vital to the organization. Optimally, the board members and the organization will have a symbiotic relationship where the individual will provide the organization with skills, resources, contacts and fundraising, while the organization will provide the individual with a sense of purpose, goodwill, fulfillment and networking opportunities.


The Bad

These board members are just the opposite: they do not show up to board meetings or events, are not engaged at meetings or with the cause and are unable to make important decisions. This kind of board member can hamper an organization’s ability to function. They don’t do what they say they will, which can burden other board members or staff. They don’t raise funds or give to the organization. They even may undermine the authority of the CEO or cause a degradation in moral via unrealistic expectations or negative criticism.


The Ugly

People are people, and when certain egos and personalities are come together, it can spell trouble with a capital T. There is nothing worse than to have infighting, nepotism, negativity, disrespect, alienating volunteers or donors, and undermining leadership at the board level. The board has a fiduciary duty to the organization, and bad decisions or actions can have very serious repercussions to the organization and other board members. It could impair the organization from raising funds, jeopardize its tax-exempt status or open the organization and other board members to litigation for which they could be personally liable.



An active board typically will have a nominating committee made up of a few seasoned board members who have time to dedicate to the process. The committee will review the qualifications and skills of the candidates, meet with them, perform background checks and verify references. The organization should verify the motives of the candidates and be wary of anyone who appears to want to promote themselves or their business and uses it as a pitch to provide the organization services. The committee should be mindful of personalities and whether the individual will be a good fit in the culture of the organization and the board. To identify potential board members, hold events targeted at a desired group of individuals, find individuals who are passionate about the organization’s mission and active in the community, and don’t overlook those who are already involved in the organization’s events and committees.


Board Orientation

Board members need to be educated about their roles, responsibilities and board rules. Having new board training or orientation to welcome them is highly recommended. Board members should be provided with information about the organization and certain documents such as the by-laws, mission, conflict of interest policies, code of conduct, job descriptions and other policies. It is important to get your board members involved right away and then maintain that commitment through mentoring with senior board members and demonstrating opportunities for leadership and growth.

The “tone at the top” is very important for nonprofits. Be aware that the commitment, cohesion and care of the board can make or break an organization and its reputation.


Susan Lebbon, CPA is a senior manager at Mengel, Metzger, Barr & Co. LLP. She may be reached at