“Plaque and Sack”: The art of getting rid of terrible board members while making them feel appreciated

[Image description: A hand holding a clear glass globe with a flat bottom. It looks like an award of some kind. Image by David Dvořáček on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, in honor of Juneteenth, I want funders and donors to remember that only 1.8% of traditional philanthropic dollars go to Black-led orgs. So, if you’ve released or are releasing a statement about Juneteenth, back it up by giving significant money to Black orgs and movements.

In our line of work, there are amazing board members who make our lives easier. They look out for staff; remember their birthdays and send flowers; advocate for equitable policies like paid family leave and sabbaticals; and pick up the tabs at lunch and coffee.

And then there are board members whose unholy presence constantly threatens to open a gate for ancient god Cthulhu to enter this reality and cover the land in a thousand years of agony; who are so irritating and possibly destructive that you imagine a giant squid-faced being ravaging the world and you think “that might not be so bad.”

Many of us have encountered those latter board members. You may be dealing with one or more right now. Ideally, the board chair or ED/CEO having an honest conversation with this board member would resolve the situation. But because of power dynamics, the way that boards are set up, and some board members’ oversized ego, that may not work, and heck, the honesty might backfire on you. So what do you do?

One strategy that some of us have been deploying is to give problematic figures some public recognition, complete with a plaque or trophy of some sort, and this may be enough to get them to leave with minimal blowback and revenge ideations. I call this technique the Plaque and Sack, and it often works because it plays to people’s sense of self-importance. This is not something to use lightly. But here are some tips in case you decide to go that route:

1.Watch out for natural opportunities for plaque and sacking: The end of someone’s term of service; when they express doubts about whether they should stay, in an effort to fish for compliments; a gala coming up. What would be ideal is the trifecta: You have a board member whose term is ending soon, they express doubts about renewing, and you have a large public event coming up. Or, in some circumstances, it’s a weekday, and you can no longer stand this board member’s face.

2.Head off any opportunity for them to renew: Make sure you close any potential doors that could allow them to renew their term or otherwise stay. Say something like, “Jeremy I know your term is coming to an end. We’d like to thank you for your service and send you off with some much deserved public recognition at our gala.” If they say, “well, I was thinking that maybe I can step down after—” cut them off by placing one finger on their lips and saying, “Bup bup bup, no Jeremy, do not ruin this beautiful moment by being humble.”

3.Get an actual plaque of some sort. Not a piece of paper. A real, shiny plaque or trophy they can hold. Something that looks expensive and has their name engraved on it. Depending on the ego of the person, you may need some fancy item made out of glass. Preferably asymmetrical, because that just looks cooler. Ensure it’s not sharp though. You don’t want anything that can be used as a weapon should the plaquee figure out what’s going on.

4.Have a formal, public moment of recognition: Reserve some time at your breakfast, luncheon, gala, groundbreaking, or whatever event you’re using, to call them on stage, hand them the award, and make a big to-do out of it. The more they feel appreciated now, the easier it’ll be for them to leave and the less frequently you’ll be clawing at your face and grinding your teeth at the thought of having to deal with this person.

5.Give them a “prestigious” award. The plaque will be more effective if it represents a grand award of some sort. If your organization already gives out awards, that’s great; use one of them as an opportunity. If you don’t, make something up. Have a fancy name for it: The Generosity, Responsiveness, Outstanding Service, and Selflessness award; The Wings of Equity, Amiability, and Kindness award; the Justice, Equality, Reliability, and Knowledge award.

6.Call this person a pillar. In your speech before you hand the plaque over, make sure you call this board member a pillar. People love being called pillars. “Jeremy, you have been a pillar in our community and at our org.” No need to mention he has been a rotting, half-termite-eaten stick of deadwood that everyone has had to tiptoe around.

7.Create a video montage of people saying nice things about the plaquee: Nothing makes someone feel appreciated like a video montage of different people giving glowing praise about them. Now, for a lot of people, this wouldn’t be hard to do, but for this particular person, you may find it challenging to find anyone who could say anything nice. In this case, ask their family members or college buddies. If you’re desperate, hire some struggling actors.

8.Give them an opportunity to give an acceptance speech. The type of board member you need to plaque and sack loves giving speeches. So let them have a few minutes to do that. It gives them a sense of closure. If they are known to be long-winded, record a video of their thank-you speech so you can edit for length.

9.Try to suppress your bitterness and resentment: I know it can be hard to watch someone get praised publicly when they have been terrible for the mission, but close your eyes to keep them from rolling, and think about how great it will be when this person is off your board and you can finally talk about someone else in your therapy sessions.

And that, my friends, is the art of the Plaque and Sack. Besides board members, it may work on difficult volunteers and donors. Again, do not deploy this lightly. But sometimes, you have to do what is needed to prevent opening the gate for the arrival of Cthulhu. And if you’re a board member reading thing, try to not be someone who has to be plaqued and sacked.

Now, if you will excuse me, I gotta go write a speech. I am getting recognized for being a “Pillar of Innovation, Strength, and Service” at this one org I am on the board of.

PEEP events happening around the US:

Calloway Stern Group in partnership with Ripple will be hosting a PEEP (Party to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy) SHOW on Tuesday, June 28 5:30-7:30 at Ripple, 701 East Bay St. The event will bring together donors and nonprofit organizations to meet, ideate, commune. This event is free to attend but registration is required. For details email: info@CallowaySternGroup.com

Philanthropy Inclusion and Equity (PIE) A Piece of the pie! June 26, 2022 3pm to 5pm in person 105 and Ashbury outside GlenVillage-will be on Eventbrite and Free hygiene and sanitation supplies give away for 1st 50 people! No registration required! This is an Networking event! Contact Tammy Kennedy (GCDC) for details!

Two CCF Texas organizers are hosting a PEEP in Austin, TX. The event will be hosted in person at Mueller Lake Park on Thursday, June 23rd from 6-8pm. Light beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) will be provided for anyone brave enough to socialize with us in public! Bring your own snacks or dinner and comfortable seating for the park (picnic blanket or folding chair). Questions? Contact Esmé (esmebengtson@gmail.com) and Rakhi (rakhiagrawal.17@gmail.com). Register here:

Socializing for Social Good – A Party to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy (PEEP), Thursday June 23rd 4-6pm @ Zocalo Food Park, 636 S 6th St, Milwaukee, WI 53204 – Please come socialize with professionals advancing social justice in Milwaukee across the nonprofit sector! Light food and beverage will be provided and it promises to be a fun, casual evening in community. Point of Contact: Benjamin Porter – Benjamin.noah.porter@gmail.com.

Seattle will be having its PEEP event on Thursday, June 23rd, 3 to 5pm, in-person, somewhere outdoor. Put your email here and we’ll email you the location as soon as we secure it.

[This event is done, but I think the group does other outings] PEEP High Elevation Edition, (Almost) Summer Solstice Hike + Social. June 4, 11am – 4pm (in person rain or shine). Join foundation and nonprofit friends for an easy, scenic hike with hosted drinks and snacks afterwards. Submit your email address to receive updates and registration info closer to the event. We won’t send anything else, we promise. https://kenetaanderson.wixsite.com/almostsummerpeep. Hosted by Keneta Anderson, Stephan Blanford, Peter Drury, & Stacey Guadnola. Questions? Please contact Stacey, sguadnola@gtcf.org.