In an ideal world, every nonprofit board member serves out their term, and the rare, unexpected resignation happens during a quiet period, causing minimal disruption.
We don’t live in an ideal world.
A resignation letter can come at any time, instantly changing the immediate focus of an organization’s board. Whether the resigning member’s reasons are mundane — maybe an individual realizes they have spread themselves too thin, they need to relocate or simply have different priorities — or dramatic, ushering out that board member and filling the vacancy takes top priority.
But board member resignations don’t have to be disruptive, and, in some cases, they may not need to happen at all. When your nonprofit is facing an unexpected leadership transition, it’s a good time to understand what the board and executive team can do to minimize disruption, handle the transition smoothly, and ensure remaining and future board members have the support they need.
Consider how your organization can handle unexpected transitions and also how technology can help reduce such changes.
Why Volunteer Board Members Resign
Outside of unrelated personal reasons, there are as many motives for board member resignation as there are people filling those roles. A few, however, crop up again and again:
- Collaboration issues or unresolved conflicts: Building consensus can be difficult for many, especially around hot-button topics. Board members can struggle with supporting outcomes they don’t agree with.
- Burnout, or feeling unvalued: The time commitment for many board roles is undefined — something this Nonprofit Quarterly column advises against. Competent, contributing board members can find themselves swamped with increased demands that they feel obligated to meet.
- Changing skill sets or unexpected responsibilities: Established professionals may be asked to learn new technologies or develop a new expertise. Board service can be different than what a trustee expects — there are almost always surprises — but the unexpected doesn’t have to be unpleasant.
A board member’s departure, of course, may also present an opportunity. In this article on Board Horror Stories, the writer comments, “A dissatisfied board member holding a board seat can be worse than a vacant board seat: They take up space and can be disruptive to healthy board activity.”
Preparing for and Managing Board Trustee Departures
Whether you’re currently facing one or more unexpected departures, or you want to be better prepared, there are questions the leadership team can answer to be in the best possible position to manage transitions.
What Policies and Processes Do Our Bylaws Require?
The organization’s bylaws document should outline requirements for managing board transition, applicable legal and governance requirements, and reporting obligations. But that doesn’t mean this document is findable, usable or up to date.
One organization offers a grim view of bylaws management: “For many nonprofits, their bylaws are just some forgotten document, full of legalese, gathering dust in a file cabinet somewhere. No one on the current board of directors knows who prepared them, nor what any of the provisions mean. They certainly are not referring back to them for any reason.”
A nonprofit board can avoid this scenario by storing documents in an accessible, searchable board management solution so that every board member can easily access the current document as well as, if applicable, previous editions of bylaws.
What is Our Communications Plan? Are We Informing All Stakeholders?
Your bylaws should spell out required actions necessary for board transition communications, but other parties may have an interest in departures — especially if the transition is related to a public conflict or other news that may attract media attention.
How Solid Is Our Succession Plan?
According to the 2021 Leading with Intent Report, only 29% of nonprofits have a written succession plan in place for their CEO departure, while only 13% have a written policy for board leadership succession planning. The last few years have highlighted the differences between organizations that invested in continuity planning and those that hadn’t. Board succession planning is important and is an effort the board should regularly revisit.
Use a succession planning checklist to get started, and consider storing succession plan documentation with bylaws in a shared document repository that the entire leadership team has access to.
How Efficient Is Our Onboarding and Continuing Development Process?
It’s in the best interest of the board and organization to bring a new board member up to speed quickly, with a fully understanding of the role they play and the major outstanding issues and goals the board is currently working on. It’s also in the new trustee’s interest to spend as little time as possible learning the ropes.
Meanwhile, all board members must be able and willing to learn new skills, especially around technology, communication trends, their organization’s mission and more. Board member training and onboarding can be facilitated by keeping materials related to these efforts in a centrally located place, accessible by trustees with all levels of experience. Board members already commit a significant amount of time to service, so allowing them to learn flexibly via an accessible repository is useful.
Are We Collaborating Well Enough?
Some departures — for health or family concerns, for example — are unavoidable. Others? A leadership team facing unexpected departures should always be willing to look at the team dynamic and uncover whether toxic traits are undermining cohesiveness. Debate is healthy, but once a decision is made, the board is required to speak as one voice.
A nonprofit’s key administrators should ensure the board has the right tools for meaningful collaboration and confident decision-making. By providing a digital single source of truth for reference materials, easy-to-use agendas and automated notifications when action is needed, a nonprofit can remove the major barriers to building consensus.
What are We Doing to Retain Remaining Board Members? Are We Making the Best Use of Our Board Members’ Skills and Interests?
The most effective board members are ones whose key skills and interests align with the responsibilities they are given. By building board profiles through a board skills audit, including expertise and interests, nonprofit leadership can align each board member with relevant needs that arise. This effort also helps to ensure the board isn’t left with gaps in expertise. You can collect this information, as well as measure the board’s overall satisfaction, by completing regular surveys. Robust agenda management software can help with this effort, housing the surveys as well as providing downloadable results.
Making this a priority, in addition to expressing genuine gratitude, can strengthen trustees’ connectedness to your nonprofit. The best way to prevent unexpected departures is to ensure existing board members are enjoying their service.
How Can We Ensure a Smooth Offboarding of Board Trustees?
Collect data at departure as well. Offer departing board members exit surveys with accessible results.
Consider assigning another board member to work on the transition with the departing trustee. This can ensure any materials or updates are not lost in the cracks.
The Right Tools for a Healthy Board
Some leadership turnover is inevitable, but the disruption caused by unexpected board resignations can be minimized, and boards can implement sound strategies to improve retention.
Diligent designs solutions that support board service and retention efforts. With BoardEffect, your board has the tools it needs to keep board members engaged, minimize departure challenges, and ensure your nonprofit has successful leadership.