Six nonprofit lessons learned from a bad board experience.
Have you ever started an organization you were passionate about, only to be held hostage to the whims and emotional baggage of the board president? I hope not because let me tell you that it did not make for a great first foray into the world of nonprofits. However, it did make me determined to never have an experience like that again.
To be fair when our organization started out, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We knew we wanted to rescue animals. Indeed, we had originally come together as volunteers at a different nonprofit that was having its own share of difficulties, courtesy of founder’s syndrome — the phenomenon where founders maintain disproportionate control, impeding the organization’s evolution and responsiveness to change. “Let’s make our own nonprofit,” we said. “Everyone gets a board position!”
But when push came to shove, we weren’t super knowledgeable about effectively managing some of the more hidden organizational responsibilities, and, perhaps even more dysfunctional, we also disagreed with each other on fundamental objectives. Mission fever couldn’t overcome everything, it turns out.
In the end, board dysfunction wasn’t even our biggest problem. Our president was.
Internet Troll turned Nightmare
Like many nonprofits, our board had a variety of political leanings, which we really tried to rise above and not have impact our mission. Our president, on the other hand, would troll social media late at night, posting inflammatory content on the personal pages of community members who had reached out to our nonprofit via social media for help with animal issues. When community members got (understandably) angry with her, she would threaten that our nonprofit would no longer help them with their issue.
Some of the board reached out to these community members in an attempt to control the damage. The president felt this was unfair, accusing us of siding with other people over her. But because she had made negative comments about them, we often had to help them so as not to appear discriminatory — regardless of whether their issue was within our scope or geographic range. And because they usually refused to let our president on their property, two of us board members had to go take care of these animal issues, each and every time.
Although this behavior might legally not be considered discrimination, it was incredibly distasteful and not the example most of us wanted to set for the organization. We were appalled that our president would berate vulnerable members of our community who had reached out for help. We were also concerned that it would escalate to something legally actionable, realizing that our bylaws didn’t even address this type of discrimination. So, we set about to make some changes.
First, we tried to implement a social media policy. Our president threatened to resign, and everyone was terrified at the idea of our organization being leaderless — definitely a devil-you-know type of situation. No one wanted to take on the mantle of leadership or deal with the drama, so we decided to overlook this distasteful behavior.
But then she started to hoard animals, picking fights with fosters and collecting animals to store at her house. After the vet clinic sent us statements showing multiple euthanasia and seemingly preventable deaths, we realized that animals were also dying under her care. When confronted, she would get emotional and go dark, refusing to answer her phone or the door to her house. When she surfaced a few days later, she refused to answer our questions, and most of the group were still too afraid to confront her.
Eventually, we scheduled an emergency meeting asking her to step down. It went as expected: she refused, cried, and then started verbally attacking board members. And she got her way. The board decided to table the issue “for an undetermined period of time.”
An Ugly End — and I Lick My Wounds
But I had had enough. I resigned the next day and surrendered the animals in my care to our local humane society, who were aware of the situation. In fact, this was my escape plan that I set up prior to the board meeting.
Not only was the local humane society aware of this mess, the local clinic director pulled me aside about six weeks later to tell me I had done the right thing by resigning. I was surprised at first — I didn’t think she knew or remembered who I was—so I asked her why she mentioned it. Her reply stuck with me: “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve seen groups like that come and go, and you don’t want to be involved with a group like that.”
And she was right. The organization in question is still around but now suffers from a terrible reputation among other rescues (and even community members) due to their unethical behavior. I know I made the right choice.
I took some time to lick my wounds, to analyze where things had gone so wrong, and to figure out how to be better in the future. I was in no hurry to do anything remotely like this again anytime soon. But I continued to rescue animals with other locals who had similar ideas. I worked with a business mentor to narrow my scope, brainstorming different scenarios and how I would handle them successfully without venturing too far off my vision.
Three years later, this coalition eventually turned into yet another nonprofit. This time, we put together a fantastic (and experienced) board who is willing to work together to flesh out the gray areas with solid organizational policies. With roles matching our strengths, we make sure to overlap our positions, and our volunteer base continues to grow. In recent years, we have developed partnerships with larger groups throughout our area, making a difference in even more lives.
The Ugliness Taught Me 6 Lessons
I have never forgotten the horror of my first board experience. In fact, that feeling has stuck with me and helped me to shape the policies and organizational structure of the nonprofit I’m now proud to be a part of. It is my hope that by sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned, you too can begin to implement them in your nonprofit — hopefully without the trauma of first-hand experience. Maybe this way something beautiful can grow out of the earlier ugliness!
Lesson 1: Just because you are passionate does not mean your nonprofit will be successful.
Passion can manifest in a lot of ways. It often looks like a flurry of activity. If you are passionate about a cause, you may be incredibly busy. But you might be busying yourself with putting out eternal fires or even bogging yourself down in the day-to-day activities without furthering the overall mission of the organization.
Instead, success looks like growing your reach, expanding the people you aim to serve with your overall mission. Success is in it for the long-haul instead of the short, passionate bursts that all-too-often burn us out. Success might mean growing your mission and expanding your scope, but the goal should be to increase impact, year over year over year. That is the difference between passion and success.
Lesson 2: Make sure you agree on fundamental issues.
Iron out the differences in fundamental issues that will impact your organization. You need to be on the same page with your mission, goals, and policies. Your organization will not be successful if there are deep-seated disagreements.
Say your nonprofit generally works towards promoting housing. You might think the best route is building new, affordable housing, but another board member might think the organization should spend its resources rehabbing old homes instead. Both are noble causes worthy of time and effort — even with a similar end goal — but not the same. In fact, the mechanics (processes, costs, planning, etc.) on how to achieve each couldn’t be more different and meshing these two would be incredibly difficult. You need to make sure your board agrees on the process as well as the intended outcome.
Lesson 3: Just like democracy, boards thrive on checks and balances.
Make sure you have checks and balances in place for everyone. These might look like task overlap or oversight for when certain things happen. People cannot be afraid of bringing up difficult topics when certain actions seem questionable. Similarly, the board as a whole must not be too intimidated to deal with difficult topics or difficult people. One person should not control the organization, its operations, or other people. Nor should any one person, including the president of the board, speak for the organization, except to deliver a message that has already been vetted and approved by the board of directors. The president in my first dysfunctional example should not have been allowed to represent her communications as in any way related to the nonprofit. As we saw in my horror story, this can quickly devolve into complete dysfunction.
But part of having checks and balances also means a slight qualification to Lesson 2: that is, you can’t just have an echo chamber of the same ideas. Don’t be afraid to bring different people to serve on your board. In fact, you should make sure to bring in qualified outsiders to help you consider problems from a variety of different angles. Outside experiences help your nonprofit improve and grow!
Lesson 4: Create a universal social media policy.
There HAS to be a social media policy that applies to everyone in the organization, especially when officers have differing political opinions. And if you’re bringing outsider perspectives in, chances are they will!
At my current organization, this means we only post relevant information related to our organization. We stay out of social and political issues unless they directly relate to our mission or activities. Since we promote spay/neuter policies, we make sure any related statements (as well as access to these services) are not politicized. Many of the services we provide are offered at no-cost to people currently unhoused or who are low-income, and while we make overall statements about the need for affordability and open accessibility to services, we also believe these aren’t political issues.
We are very clear as to where we stand within our niche, practicing empathy and highlighting the “no judgment zone,” especially since we mostly deal with vulnerable populations. By being up-front and clear about this, our organization doesn’t attract folks who aren’t like-minded (in this particular vein). Of course, our members and volunteers are allowed to have their own pages where they can post their opinions, but these are separate from our organization.
Lesson 5: Policies need teeth.
Policies without teeth are practically useless. They can “check the box,” but if a policy isn’t followed by all (or implemented in an equal manner), resentments fester. This inequality negatively impacts morale among group members.
Knowing this, my current organization worked together to create policies, hashing out what we wanted to include and why (like our social media policy). Many of us had previous nonprofit experience (sometimes with difficult people), so we used this to cover gray areas or previously unaddressed issues. But we also know this is an ongoing process: when we discover something that isn’t covered in a policy, we add it or create new policies.
We also follow these policies, making sure all our volunteers are aware of them as well as the consequences for breaking them. If our volunteers do not abide by these policies, they are removed from volunteering.
Lesson 6: Integrate yourself with the community and your volunteers.
Many (if not most) nonprofits continuously interface with the communities they serve. But this means they must be continually networking—both with members of the community and potential partners.
In my horror story, the previous organization completely insulated itself from outsiders, and allowed one person (our president) to be responsible for all outreach activities. Many of the other board members expected her to carry this out individually, either not viewing it as important or just not wanting any part in this, a significant red flag for an organization whose mission hinges on community interaction.
Instead of siloing all of the community interaction on one person, multiple group members must serve as touchpoints within the community. Outside networking must be a group effort, both to be effective and also to ensure that communication with communities is done in a respectful and appropriate manner.
The same goes for volunteers. My previous organization’s president kept a distinct barrier between the volunteers and other board members. In fact, as foster coordinator, she was also the only person in contact with many of our volunteers, which meant they didn’t know anyone else to turn to in the organization. As a result, many did not stick around.
If you want your volunteers to stick around, they must feel useful and part of the team. Don’t just give them menial tasks or busywork—include them in meetings and information-sharing practices. My current organization makes a concerted effort to match volunteers with their interests, strengths, and passions, and we’ve found that utility breeds success!
A Paw-sitive End (that is not the end)
Part of growing and improving is learning from past mistakes. This can range from minor missteps to full-blown disasters (like my board horror story), but the key is how you respond. Some situations can be rectified, but others might need to be scrapped alongside making some uncomfortable decisions in the process.
However, as you move forward, you’ll realize your experiences help focus your actions in a direction that best supports your organization’s mission. For me, my previous board disaster presented an opportunity to build an organization that aligns with my goals and ethics. From the ashes, we’ve created a top-notch team, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the result. Remember that, like everything in life, you need the journey to get to the destination. It’s the process that helps us shape what we want our organizations to be.
 For more information on how to get (and keep) volunteers, check out this practical process guide as well as this article on implementing skills-based volunteering!