Here’s How You Know It’s Time To Step Away From a Board

Board membership is one of the most important acts of service that someone can give to their community. But when board members are not engaged, it impacts the effectiveness of the board and thus the organization’s mission.

Peter Drucker said, “To be effective, a nonprofit needs a strong board, but a board that does the board’s work. The board not only helps think through the institution’s mission, it is the guardian of that mission and makes sure the organization lives up to its basic commitment.”

Board service is not a lifelong commitment, nor should it be. Some board members may serve happily for years before stepping down to pursue other goals while others may quickly find that it’s not what they expected.

Neither situation is right or wrong, but both are signs that it’s time to move on. This article shares two different perspectives — one from the board member and one from the governance chair — to help understand when it’s time for a board member to decide to step away or when the governance chair should ask a board member to resign.

The Board Member’s Perspective:

A board member may end their board service for a variety of reasons, both positive and negative.

  • Positive Scenario: You have served well and enjoyed your time on the board. It’s been a rewarding experience but your personal and/or professional commitments have changed. It’s becoming more difficult to invest the same time, energy, and resources that you once were able to do.
  • Negative Scenario: You don’t feel connected to the organization or to your fellow board members. What you thought would be a good fit has just not panned out. You miss multiple board meetings, you haven’t been engaged on a committee or project, and you have not made a gift.

In either case, or somewhere in between, it’s time to step away from the board, even if it’s not the end of your term. We find that board members feel bad about leaving, especially before their term is up because they “don’t want to let the organization down.” However, it’s not a failure if the circumstances surrounding your service have changed.

If you are in the middle of a term, have an open and honest conversation with board leadership, including the board chair and/or governance committee chair, about what’s changed for you. Maybe there is a committee that you could serve on instead of being a member of the governing board, or maybe you can help identify a replacement.

If you are at the end of your term, use this natural timing as a moment of reflection before automatically renewing for another term. Too often, we see board members “re-up” for a second (or third) term without a pause or an assessment to discern if that is the right thing to do — for themselves and the organization.

We encourage all boards to utilize term limits because they create a healthy culture, enable changes in leadership, and allow new voices to be heard. This resource from BoardSource is helpful for boards to understand the pros and cons of term limits.

The Governance Chair’s Perspective:

If you notice that a board member isn’t fulfilling their duties, we encourage you to have an honest conversation, even when it’s hard. Avoiding crucial conversations in the name of conflict avoidance doesn’t make the situation any better, in fact, it usually makes it worse.

A governance committee is often called the conscience of the board and should have a much larger function than the old “nominating committees” of the past.  A strong governance committee adds value by institutionalizing best practices through strategic recruitment, effective board engagement, and intentional revitalization.

As chair of the governance committee, it is your job to call a board member who has missed several meetings to touch base and confirm that the organization’s mission is still a priority for them. It’s your job to call a board member who may show up physically but is not engaged intellectually or emotionally. And, it’s your job to ensure that a board self-assessment process happens annually.

There are two types of self-assessment — one where each board member and the chief executive rate how the board is doing as a collective entity (outlined in parts onetwothree, and four of our board performance series), and one where each board member rates how they are doing as an individual board member. The personal assessment can be a powerful tool to use at the end of a board member’s term to assist in determining if they should renew their service.

Serving a board is a major commitment and should not be taken lightly. If you are a board member who can no longer engage in the way the organization needs, stepping away may be the right thing to do. And, if you are a governance chair who is concerned about the lack of engagement of a board member, then an honest discussion is needed. On both sides, we should be open to conversations about expectations, and not view resignation as a failure.

Without a fully engaged board, the success and impact of nonprofits are at stake.

Article by: Kerri Laubenthal Mollard, Founder & CEO

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