Q: I staff a key committee. The chair of this committee is nice, seems to care about the organization, and gives a nice financial gift. The problem is he didn’t show up at a critical meeting at which he was to facilitate a portion of that meeting and give a number of important reports. I had spent hours prepping him. I never got so much as an email or text saying he wouldn’t be attending. I’ve never had something like this happen before. I don’t know how to approach it.
A side note… this is someone relatively new to the organization. He did not come up through the ranks. Rather, he was plopped into leadership. Despite my preparing him for the meeting, is it possible he just didn’t know how essential it was for him to be there?
A: Your side note is very relevant. For years now, I’ve seen people enter organizations and within a matter of months, if they seem smart and show enthusiasm, they are not only asked onto the board, they are thrust into key leadership positions – often including chair of the board – before they truly even understand the mission. Rather than being provided the expectations of, and training for, the job they are being asked to assume, they are assured it will be easy and not very time-consuming. This leads to frustration on all sides. The volunteer soon realizes the job is much more involved than s/he was led to believe, and often backs away when the responsibilities are more involved than were promised. Staff get flummoxed and then upset, as you did. But, whether this is a case of irresponsibility or ignorance, you do have to confront the individual.
Your job is easier if it’s a case of ignorance. Usually, a conversation that outlines the expectations of the position – the conversation that another board director should have had with this individual before s/he accepted the position – and the offer of some training will be sufficient to see the desired change in behavior. I would also provide a list of all meeting and event dates for the year, so that the individual can calendar them.
If you discover that the individual is irresponsible, I would approach this from several different directions. First, I would ask that the board chair – or perhaps the chair of your governance/board development/leadership committee – speak with this person about his/her responsibilities. It is powerful having a peer speak to the importance of the job and the reliance of other board directors on this person if the organization is to achieve its desired impact in the community. And, it is only a peer that can speak to balancing the time and skill commitments of volunteering for your organization with family, work, leisure, and other responsibilities.
The board chair can also specify what behaviors have to change, and the consequences of there being no, or too little, change. Referring to the bylaws and what they say about under-performing committee chairs make it a bit easier to hold this committee chair’s feet to the fire. Here again, hearing this information from a peer is much better than hearing it from you.
Still, as this person’s staff liaison, you have your own responsibilities for making sure the individual understands what is expected. I’d arrange a private meeting in a neutral arena that you can still control. I would ask a lot of questions, including such things as: “What were you hoping to accomplish when you accepted the position?” “What weren’t you told that you wish you were?” “What information do you still need in order to do your job in a way that will move the organization toward mission achievement?” “How can I help you be as successful as you want to be?” Based on the answers you get, you can design a program for creating behavioral change. If you get the sense that this individual has no desire to change, it’s fair to ask, “Am I sensing from you that you really do not want this responsibility? If that’s the case, how can we still keep you involved while freeing up this position to allow someone else to take it on?”
As in the case of the committee chair who simply did not know his responsibilities, I would provide that list of all meeting and event dates so that there can be no excuse beyond a true emergency for not attending meetings in the future.
If, after these various interventions, there still is no change in behavior, go back to your bylaws to determine how you can remove this individual from his/her position if s/he doesn’t step down voluntarily. You can’t take the chance of this one bad apple infecting the entire barrel.
Have questions about other issues that impact our sector? Let CoreStrategies help you answer them for your organization. To learn more, contact Terrie Temkin at 888-458-4351 Ext. 83 or TerrieTemkin@CoreStrategies4Nonprofits.com.
Terrie Temkin, Ph.D. is an internationally-recognized governance and planning expert, as well as the editor of You and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Tips from the Field’s Top Practitioners, Researchers and Provocateurs. She is a founding principal of CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, Inc., which interweaves business development, governance, board development, fund development, PR/marketing and public policy to strengthen organizational capacity. She invites your questions and comments. Contact her at 888-458-4351 Ext. 83 or TerrieTemkin@CoreStrategies4Nonprofits.com. Meanwhile, check out the CoreStrategies’ website for back issues of “On Nonprofits” and other articles at www.CoreStrategies4Nonprofits.com.