Turning around an underperforming board

Boards can serve an extremely important role within a nonprofit institution as their members share their expertise, insights, and contributions. Yet, we’ve found among the various types of boards that we’ve worked with over the years that underperforming boards are the norm rather than the exception.

There are several reasons that’s the case. To start, board members often don’t understand their roles. They lack firm guidelines about where board oversight leaves off and executive management begins. That poses challenges because, as a group, we want the board to focus on high-level strategy and policy while we want individual board members to help with on-the-ground fundraising activities. But it can be difficult, even threatening, for executives or volunteers to attempt to deal with underperforming boards, which is why they often continue unchecked.

We know all too well that those issues impact advancement officers and an institution’s fundraising efforts. After all, board members are also donors and, often, we staff the board but don’t have executive authority.

Yet, despite the significant challenges involved in dealing with an underperforming board, the effort is well worth it. We’ve seen the long-term benefits and results that have flowed from institutions making a focused effort to revamp their boards.

Identify the problem

Board issues typically occur in three general areas:

  • Dysfunctional group dynamics
  • Disengaged board members
  • A lack of clarity around board members’ roles and responsibilities

Let’s start by examining dysfunctional group dynamics. As with most hierarchies, functionality begins at the top.  A strong partnership between the chief executive officer of the board and the chair of the board is critical. Boards function best when there is an overall collegial relationship between board and staff.

The chair of the board plays a critical and challenging role here; he or she has to be willing and able to manage all aspects of the board, including the behavior of its members. That can be a difficult role, which is why it’s important that the chair understands before taking the job that they may need to address issues with their peer volunteers.

Boards can also become dysfunctional when unbecoming behavior goes unaddressed. For example, we have seen the same kind of actors found on playgrounds: the “bully,” the “old guard,” the “empire builder” who can assert his or her ideas and silence more rational ones. Bad behavior can hinder the board’s—and the institution’s—ability to move forward.

Other issues stem from disengaged board members. In our efforts to recruit “star power” to our boards, we often recruit people with soft, unclear, or false expectations. That’s why we can’t soft-pedal our expectations that we want them to help with our fundraising.

Issues typically arise from a lack of clarity. We often don’t spend enough time explicitly mapping out board members’ roles and responsibilities. The board—and the board chair in particular—need to focus on strategy rather than meddling in operational matters.

What to do about it?

As is the case in many areas of advancement, relationships are a crucial ingredient to success. It is difficult to overstate the importance of building relationships between staff and board members, as well as fostering the development of relationships between board members so that they’re not just coming together during a meeting. It often pays off for staff to invest time in simple actions, such as calling board members after and between meetings to keep them informed, hosting informal discussions with small groups of board members and, when possible, engage them with the institution in educational and social ways.

Strong boards also need clear documents that detail their roles—including individual job descriptions—and what is expected of them. Job descriptions may include basic details, such as expected individual activity, and even norms of how the board functions. It’s helpful when the board reviews these documents annually and collectively to ensure that they can be used to keep board members accountable.

Meeting agendas are another set of documents that are crucial to success. Structuring meeting agendas around discussion and debate help to ensure board members feel valued and engaged. At least half of the “airtime” and preferably 70%, should be from board members with staff presentations limited to what is essential. It’s critical that fundraising is always on the agenda, as well.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the board’s makeup; strong boards are well-rounded. That requires staff to devote significant time into assessing what the board is missing and vetting candidates for the board. Too often we don’t take recruitment as seriously as we should, which hinders our ability to attract strong board members. Some institutions may even take steps toward building a board pipeline by adding non-board members to board committees to assess how they work with their colleagues and the value they bring to the institution.

Finally, we’ve found that when there are problems with a board it is often helpful to have outside counsel who can provide perspective. They can help mediate issues that have arisen, coach board members, as well as identify solutions and introduce new practices.

Reemphasize the board’s critical role in fundraising

We know all too well that board candidates are often willing to help the institution in nearly any way—except fundraising, which is crucial to the institution’s success. But we also know that there are many reasons—and benefits of—involving boards in the fundraising process.

Volunteers often sell themselves short in the positive influence they can have on fundraising and staff often aren’t clear or direct enough in how they can engage in the fundraising process. That being said, high-performing institutions often have a strong cadre of board members who are engaged in fundraising. That’s not an accident. Those institutions often have volunteers—and board members in particular—who are engaged at every stage of the fundraising cycle.

Some of those board members help behind the scenes by offering their feedback and reactions to everything from prospect strategies to draft proposals to faculty presentations. Others may play a crucial role in helping you identify prospective donors. And, because they often have an address book that’s markedly different than the institution’s, they can help you gain access and build relationships with those prospects. Because they’re a volunteer, rather than a staff member, they may seem less threatening (and as a result, are more effective) to a prospective donor.

We know that many board members’ reluctance to take part in fundraising is their desire to steer well clear of the “ask.” That’s fine! They can assist with solicitations in countless other ways, including strategizing on the proposal, setting up the appointment, and thanking the donor after a gift is made.

We’ve seen many benefits from coaching board members to serve as key spokespeople for an institution. Prospective donors want to hear from current donors, which is why board members who understand the case for support and can convey the institution’s key messages—along with their own donor experience with the institution—are incredibly valuable.

Board members can, and should be, valuable resources to your institution. While it may be difficult—and at times painful—to initiate change, the payoff may be well worth it thanks to the long-term impact it can have on your institution.


Working with an underperforming board can be extremely challenging. If you need assistance turning around your board, please reach out to Keith or Rod at kbrant@grenzglier.com or rkirsch@grenzglier.com

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About the authors

Keith Brant

Vice President

Keith Brant, Vice President, has led advancement teams at distinguished higher education institutions for more than 30 years in all areas of advancement, including development, alumni engagement, marketing, advocacy, special events, and advancement services. He has created strategies for ambitious major campaigns that have exceeded goals, directed programs through transitions,…

Rodney P. Kirsch

Senior Vice President

Rodney P. Kirsch, Senior Vice President, brings a wealth of experience in alumni relations and higher education fundraising to the firm. Over his 34-year career in university advancement, he has provided executive leadership in raising more than $5 billion of philanthropy. Rod is currently Senior Vice President Emeritus for Development…