Why do so many nice people become assholes when they join a board?

[Image description: A golden retriever puppy looking directly at the camera, with a mournful expression. Maybe they’re just tired. Image by birgl on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, if you get this in time, Edgar Villanueva and I are having one of our “Decolonizing AF” conversations at 10:30am PT on Instagram today, May 23rd. I think if you go to either of our Instagram pages (@villanuevaedgar or @nonprofitAF) at that time, it should let you know that we’re speaking live. Have low expectations; we’re just winging it.

Also, the time is coming up for our annual sector-wide Party to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy (PEEP), a time around the Summer Solstice when funders and nonprofit leaders get together to hang out informally, with the hope of building relationships and breaking down power dynamics. If your geographic area is hosting something, let me know in the comment section so I can compile it. In Seattle, there’s likely going to be an event on Thursday June 15th from 3 to 5pm somewhere in the Central District; more details coming soon.

18 years ago, I remember being excited that I finally got this really great community leader to join my nonprofit’s board. I will call him “Minh.” I was excited to have Minh and his skills, especially around the logistics of running a board, which at the time was full of well-meaning but inexperienced leaders. Maybe Minh would get the board into shape. And he seemed like a nice guy who truly wanted to help the community.

Minh turned out to be a nightmare. Among his many offenses, he butted into operations, including insisting on designing the flyer for the annual gala. When it turned out horrible and the staff gave him feedback (“this looks like we’re throwing a Halloween party”), he was offended and demanded staff meeting minutes for some reason. Then he tried to start a mutiny to remove the board chair, which then caused a rumor that I was trying to remove the board chair, and then the board chair tried to get me fired as the ED. Even now, 18 years later, I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat, Minh’s cursed words ringing in my ears: “I have graphic design experience!”

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“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.”

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7 principles of community-centric boards

[Image description: Fluffy yellow and brown ducklings, one floating in a small metal bowl filled with water. Image by AdinaVoicu on Pixabay]

A while ago, a colleague and I, both haggard executive directors with involuntary eye twitches, were having lunch. Our conversation led us to our boards, and he told me of how his board chair scolded him for the egregious crime of forwarding a funding opportunity to another nonprofit. “He was mad that I helped our ‘competition’ by letting them know of a request for proposals from a foundation. I figured why wouldn’t we share RFPs with one another?”

Fast forward to now, several years and a pandemic later, and unfortunately, I still hear stories like this. Boards of directors are truly some of the biggest stressors in the sector, often more harmful than helpful, as I’ve written about here and here. But it’s partly because we’ve trained boards to think and act in certain ways, ways that over time help to entrench siloing, competitiveness, and survivalism.

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Board members, please check your egos at the door

[Image description: A weasel or stoat with a brown coat and white underbelly, crawling halfway out from under a wooden platform. They look pensive. Image by trondmyhre4 on pixabay. I think I may have used this image before. I am not sure. Oh well! Can’t hurt to look at this cute little munchkin again.]

Hi everyone, I had to go to the emergency room for severe pain in my right side, and found out I likely have kidney stones and it may take weeks for it to resolve. I’m on some pain medications. So this post may be slightly cranky and possibly filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Drink lots of water and cut back on sodium. Kidney stones are not fun; 3 out of 5 stars, would not recommend.

A while ago, I wrote about the Rule of One-Thirds when it comes to boards: One-third of boards are helpful, one-third are useless, and one-third are actually destructive to their missions. Of the two-thirds of boards that are useless or destructive, a lot of it can be blamed on the fact that the default board model we’ve been using is archaic and makes little sense. Let’s take a group of well-meaning people who see one percent of the work, who often have little to no nonprofit experience, and who many times don’t reflect the community being served, and give them vast power over the organization. (And while we’re at it, let’s have them conduct business through Robert’s Rules, a set of rules formalized literally 145 years ago, in 1876).

While our sector works to explore new governance models, we need to address other issues with boards, namely that many board members, and specifically board chairs, have warped perceptions of their importance, combined with delusions of wisdom. Board members’ egos can be one of the most aggravating things about working in this field. It is probably one of the biggest drivers of EDs/CEOs quitting their jobs to pursue a career in real estate.

Boards are groups of volunteers who give a lot of time, money, and skills to nonprofits, and should be appreciated. But like funders, you wield enormous power in our sector, which means no one is telling you the truth, and the truth is that many of you are causing a ton of damage. So, if you are a board member, and especially if you are a board chair or will assume this position, please check your egos and remind yourselves of these things:

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The real reasons many organizations are still unable to diversify their board, staff, fundraising committees, etc.

[Image description: Three apples standing in a row on a shiny black surface, the two on the outside being red and white and identical, while the one in the middle is in grayscale but otherwise also identical in size and pattern to the other two. I thought I would mix it up a bit by including pictures of fruit instead of the usual pictures of baby animals. Image by geralt on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, sorry this post is a day late (my laptop updated at the most inconvenient time last night and took hours). Before we get to this week’s topic, quick announcement. BEER, which stands for Beverage to Enhance Equity in Relationships, took a break last year, but is now back on this year. It is a time for foundation staff and trustees and nonprofit staff and board members to get together in their cities and just hang out and see one another as human beings. It usually happens around the Summer Solstice, so this year it’ll be around June 17th or 18th. Of course, grabbing some fries or ice cream together preferably outdoor or virtually is by no means a substitute for meaningful change in philanthropy, but it’s a start.

However, we’re changing the name to be more thoughtful to colleagues who are in recovery or who don’t drink for religious or other reasons. The finalists so far are “Party to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy (PEEP),” “Beverage to Enhance Equity in Philanthropy (BEEP),” “Party to Enhance Equity in Relationships (PEER),” or “Power-Equalizing and Equity in Relationships (PEER).” Please go here to vote on it. I’m serious! It’ll take you literally 20 seconds. Feel free to suggest other names. I’ll announce the new name next week!

One of the questions I get asked most often when I give presentations is “Vu, have you tried tea-tree oil for your acne?” But also just as frequently asked is “What advice do you have for my organization as we try to diversify our board, staff, etc.?” For years people have been asking how to diversify their orgs. This is discouraging. We’ve had endless DEI workshops, various “white papers” and articles, and at least one puppet show. What the heck is going on? Why do we suck so much at diversifying?

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