When board members don't show up at meetings and other dysfunctional behaviours

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You agreed on the date of the board meeting at the last meeting and you sent an Outlook Meeting Invitation to ensure each board member had the next meeting date in his or her calendar. You sent out the board package a week before the meeting, a definite reminder of the meeting date. Still, some board members do not attend because of “conflicts”. What can you do?

Well first, let’s explore why this might be happening. After all, each of us is blessed with 24 hours each day - we have the choice to decide how to use them.

In addition to using our own experience, we did a literature review to seek solutions to dysfunctional board and committee behaviour and this article summarizes our findings.

Is your meeting agenda relevant to the participants?

The number one reason for volunteer apathy, in my view, is a perception of lack of relevancy. The meetings simply do not give the volunteers anything they can use. For some, the sense of purpose of the organization has to directly apply to them too. When this is the situation, and you want to keep that volunteer at the table, a remedial action would be to work with the volunteer to understand what it is she needs. This could be done by an individual interview or by a full board/committee survey. It is often preferable to use an independent third party to conduct such interviews, not only to ensure confidentially but also to eliminate any personality issues that might prevent honest feedback.

How to deal with volunteers who develop meeting conflicts

Another popular reason for volunteers missing meetings is time constraints or last minute conflicts (which can be professional or personal). You may want to make it more convenient to participate by allowing members to participate by teleconference and perhaps only for a portion of the meeting. We know that for many, participation by phone is not preferred, but isn’t it better than nothing?

When missing meetings becomes the norm

Some not-for-profit organizations include an attendance chart along with the board/committee meeting package. If members missing meetings becomes the norm, the chair needs to engage the group to deal with the problem they have created. Possible solutions include:

  • Relying on committees or task forces to do the heavy thinking and ensuring they have the needed skill sets to develop solid recommendations that the board is likely to support without needing a lot of time to consider.
  • Plan a social component to board meetings to support camaraderie and bonding so that members can develop a sense of obligation to the team and discuss the attendance problem in a social setting (over a meal for example). When a group has re-established its sense of purpose, attendance usually improves.
  • Reassess the size and composition of your board. Is it time to follow the trend of smaller boards (5 - 7 people)? Can you support such a structure with sector advisory groups to allow engagement and representation for those who want to contribute?

Other dysfunctional behaviours

Inability to make decisions

Boards and committees often struggle with making decisions. A common solution is to send the issue to a committee or task force for study. While this is an appropriate solution, the board should send some guidelines to the group providing criteria for their recommendations (e.g. must be within budget, must address our mission and strategic priorities, etc.).

Such a board must also apply reasonable discipline; after sufficient discussion and time, it must be understood that a majority vote will carry a decision and all board members must support and defend that decision (even if they did not support it during the discussion phase). “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. It is prudent for the chair to remind everyone at every occasion.

Uninvited devil’s advocates

It is quite common for a volunteer to assume the role of “critic” or “devil’s advocate”. If this behaviour is not productive and is downright critical, it is the chair’s duty to address the problem with the individual outside of the meeting and reach an understanding about what is acceptable.

Ineffective chair

If you have never experienced an ineffective chair, consider yourself very fortunate. There are many resources available to assist chairs, including the article Tips for Chairing Meetings on the CharityVillage site. However, who tells the chair to read it? It depends. If the past chair is on the board/committee, he/she is a likely candidate. If the executive director/chief staff person has a solid relationship with the chair, she can be the one. By conducting a board/committee self-evaluation survey, you can generate feedback for the chair that is anonymous - arming the message with a shield.


An effective way to stop boards/committees who micromanage is to have a very clear policy on the board’s role and responsibilities, supported by a “Dos and Don’ts” sheet that is inserted into each meeting’s package. The chair should empower the group to “call it” when they observe anyone trying to micromanage.

Insufficient communications

Whether the issue is staff not communicating to volunteers, or volunteers not communicating to members, or combinations in between, insufficient communication can render an organization dysfunctional. The solution is to develop a communications plan that delineates who communicates to whom, when.

Serving his/her own agenda

Whether a member is putting his or her own company, chapter, or other personal agenda ahead of the organization’s agenda, this is wrong and should not be tolerated. The chair should state upfront at the beginning of the meeting that the purpose of the meeting is to make decisions that are in the best interest of the organization. If dysfunctional behaviour persists, this should be addressed by some of the solutions already offered in this article.

The primary cause of dysfunction in boards

We firmly believe that having a strategic plan with clearly articulated priorities is a strong tool to use to refocus dysfunctional behaviours. Tying the behaviour to how it serves the plan allows the chair to seek group consensus to follow the roadmap that has been approved.

In another article on this site, Mel Gil wrote:

My research has lead me to conclude that the primary cause of dysfunction in boards (and the board/staff relationship) is a lack of clarity in roles, goals and expectations:

  • The roles of the board, its members, the CEO, staff, volunteers and agents;
  • The expectations that each of these players brings to their respective responsibilities and authority;
  • The goals and objectives established for each, and for the organization as a whole, which create a focus on results;
  • The lines of communication and accountability for performance;
  • Evaluation against established standards of conduct (particularly with respect to major organizational changes, management of resources, expenditure authorities, and expense claims).

In summary, having a strategic plan to redirect misplaced energies and adopting meeting rules and procedures can go a long way to turning around dysfunctional boards/committees. Another tool that might prove useful is adopting a meeting covenant - for a sample click here.

Paulette in president of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the not-for-profit association community. Paulette co-authored two manuscripts on risk management & not-for-profit organizations and regularly conducts risk management, strategic planning and board development workshops. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or Paulette@solutionstudioinc.com.

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