3 Ways to Deal with Negative Nonprofit Board Members

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Negative Nonprofit Board Members: 3 Ways to Deal With Them

by Wayne Elsey

Not too long ago, I was discussing nonprofit board leadership with a colleague. This particular executive was someone who worked themselves up through the trenches. Because of it, they now found themselves leading a substantial nonprofit, but they also faced fear-based leadership — mainly caused by one negative board member. Unfortunately, this kind of leadership has permeated the sector for a long time, and it’s one of the reasons why people have lost trust in nonprofits.

Because of the events that have transpired in 2020, nonprofits are suffering. What’s more, some nonprofit board members don’t understand how to get themselves out of the challenging fundraising situation. So, a few might make unreasonable demands on nonprofit executives, such as my colleague, when instead they should be thoughtfully trying to figure out a path forward. While my colleague knew what they were getting into because they had worked at the nonprofit, the fear at the board level brimmed during a recent board meeting, all promoted by one person.

Sure, there’s good reason to be uncertain in the current environment. However, all nonprofit leaders have to get a handle on the situation and move forward — positively. Our social enterprise surveyed thousands of nonprofit groups recently, and here’s what we found:

  • 83% of nonprofits canceled fundraising
  • 78% of organizations did not see themselves recovering in the second half of 2020

Thus, on top of the stresses of trying to recover, my colleague, and others I’m sure, have to deal with a negative board member or two who could cause havoc. The reality is that this is an unprecedented moment for nonprofits. And because of it, all boards of directors have to support their executives now more than ever. But if you happen to be an executive director, how do you deal with the stress due to what’s happened, plus a negative board member making things even more complicated? The following are three suggestions.

1. The most important thing to remember is that someone else’s negativity does not have to affect your life residually. You have control over how you choose to let them affect you — or not.

If you’re a nonprofit leader, the chances are that you have one board member who just doesn’t quite fit or you would like to see leave the board. This board member can’t get out of their negative environment, and everything they do and say is all about how terrible everything is, or how nothing will turn out right. They’re so cynical that every great day or success becomes somehow contorted into a tragic tale of events. There is nothing positive in life, and sometimes, a negative board member seems to take pleasure in blanketing themselves and everyone around them in their negativism.

However, the very first thing you have to do in dealing with a board member’s negativity is to remember this: You have a choice over your thoughts and emotions. So, no matter what happens in any phone call or meeting that includes a negative board person, your choice is whether you will let them affect you, and how much. If it were me, I would tell you to take a 10-minute mental break or leave the office as I tend to do when I want to get my thoughts back to the center. Being negative after you have dealt with this person will only make you negative with others on your team. Your team needs all the positivity it could get at this point. Therefore, keep every interaction with this person in a self-contained box. Once you finish interacting them — move on with your day.

2. The chances are that if you experience the effects of a negative board member, so does your team. So, make it a point to redirect negative energy in a positive way within your organization.

When you allow someone else’s attitude to affect yours — there is a payoff to you. Perhaps you don’t feel as sure as you think you do in your position at work, and that negative feeling is a symptom of that reality within you. Maybe it’s something else altogether. No matter what, as I mentioned, you have to choose to refocus and recenter your energy mentally. And this is especially important because negativity seems to radiate. For instance, if you had a tough board meeting or call, then perhaps you snap at your assistant for asking a question. The assistant then turns around and sours as well, hence the spread of negativity.

So, a second thing to remember is that when you get negative energy from a board member, whom you feel has power over the organization, you have to re-channel that energy. Meaning, take the negative energy and replace it with positivity. For example, let’s go back to a challenging encounter with your negative board member and your assistant, asking you a question. Instead of snapping at your assistant, invite them to sit with you for a bit and just check-in with them about their life after you answer their question. Forget about work for a few minutes and get in touch with your humanity. What you will find is that by redirecting lousy energy into sound energy, it dissipates. Your assistance is flattered that you cared to ask about their life, and you have done something good for yourself and someone else.

3. If you’re a nonprofit executive, you care about social good. Make it a point to remember that you want to be the change you want to see, and people are counting on you.

Nonprofit leaders join the philanthropic sector because they care about social issues and want to help ease the suffering and burdens of others. So, if you’re an executive, the chances are that you have plenty of people counting on you. For starters, you have the people who rely on you and the work you do in your community. Secondly, you also have a team that looks up to you for leadership. We all know the words attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change.” As a nonprofit leader, that’s what you have to model for the people you serve, and your team.

Sure, it’s challenging to pivot and change perspective after dealing with a negative nonprofit board member. However, don’t forget that this person is only one person, and they don’t speak for the board as a whole, or your nonprofit organization. Furthermore, the people in your community and your team need you to model leadership. So, after a tough exchange, remind yourself to be the change you want to see in your community and at your nonprofit.

Dealing with any cynical person, including a nonprofit board member, starts with the space in your head. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the power is outside of you. It isn’t. You have full control over your thoughts, emotions and how you behave and act. And knowing that idea and fully embracing it is part of sound nonprofit leadership.

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