Bully! The scourge of nonprofit Boards and what to do about it

Like every other human organization, a nonprofit Board of Directors is subject to being taken over by a bully. Nonprofit Boards are actually somewhat more at risk of bully dominance than other groups, because the only compensation for serving is psychological. For most Board members, the psychological reward is the consciousness of doing good in good company–but for some, satisfaction can only flow from being utterly and completely IN CHARGE.

What does it matter? Because the bully turns a nonprofit Board into a corporation of one, and deprives the Executive Director and the agency of the expertise and skills of everyone else.

Here are three common forms of nonprofit Board bully, and what to do about them:

The Martinet Bully: Often a man, and often the Board chair. Determined to import the standards of the business world to the nonprofit sector whether they’re applicable or not. His methods involve an exaggerated concern for efficiency, so-called: meetings start early, whether or not people are there; discussion is foreshortened with a remark like, “We’ve got the report–let’s just vote.” What the ED should do, in the short term: say, very mildly, “I’m not sure everyone’s been heard from yet.” In the medium term: give the martinet a project he can handle by himself which will keep him out of others’ way. In the long term: find someone else willing to serve as Board chair, who will practice for that position by deliberately sticking a spoke in the current chair’s wheel when he starts running over the rest of the group.

The Expert Bully: “I’m on 33 other Boards, and it’s always done this way.” She shuts down other opinions with a look of condescending pity for those lacking her experience. Interestingly, this brand of bully is rarely willing to serve as Board chair (too busy with the other Boards, perhaps). What the Board chair and ED should do, in the short term: make sure they know of at least one example of things being done differently, and mention it. In the medium term: give the expert a project that can be handled exactly as she pleases. In the long term: identify and work to empower other Board members in specific areas of governance–personnel, say, or taxes–and thus gradually reduce the scope of the expert’s terrain.

The Passive-Aggressive Bully: “You can do it that way if you want, but then I’m going to have to quit.” This one arises most frequently at the pivotal moment when an agency is finally adopting a minimum gift. The effort is to make everyone else feel guilty for having too much money and not enough sympathy for poor little Passive-Aggressive. What the Board chair and ED can do in the short term: pretend not to hear what’s been said. In the medium and long term: cultivate other members of the Board in pretending not to hear what’s been said. The only way to handle this bully is to ignore her.

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