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Failing Forward | How I’m Dealing With Difficult Board Members

A street sign with arrows pointing to two different directions.

It’s pretty common to hear about the tension between executive directors and board members. But what happens when you decide it’s time to change the board entirely? In her third piece for her series Failing Forward, Anne Desrosiers, founder of The World is Your Oyster (TWIYO)—a nonprofit dedicated to informing and transforming urban youth into leaders of tomorrow through distinct travel, cultural, and international experiences—shares how she had to make the tough decision to rebuild TWIYO’s board.

Recently, I tackled (and am still working on) one of the toughest aspects of starting and running a nonprofit: rebuilding the board. After two years of being in the planning stages—with a few fundraisers under my belt, some great structural victories (website, incorporation, IRS filing, etc), and making progress with schools for the fall—I suspended the current, founding Board of Directors and began the process of building a new one with new members.

Why things needed to change

Like most founders /executive directors of a start-up nonprofit, the founding board consisted of people that I knew who were in support of the cause and could help TWIYO get some of the critical things it needed to get going. One of our founding board members assisted me with the design and launch of our website, which all of us (and most visitors) love. Another was great at getting turnout from his co-workers for our events. Another compiled a list of all the media contacts in Brooklyn that we could reach out to once we got things going. The founding board helped TWIYO to get to where it is now.

However, because the board was comprised mainly of my friends and classmates, I encountered several problems. Specifically, no one had served on a board before and as time went on people became less and less responsive.

I offered resources on what being on a board meant and held board trainings (I learned most of this in my graduate program and from United Way’s BoardServe NYC program, so I was excited to help everyone become better board members). I also tried to be understanding about people’s hectic schedules. Yet, while I communicated with my board I was not seeing the zeal and attentiveness that I felt was required at this juncture of the organization’s growth. As the organization evolved, I knew I would need a more supportive board, responsive and engaged board. Eventually, I was the one acquiring all the resources without assistance from the board.

How I made the change

It was difficult to take the reigns and suspend the board. However, in our by-laws and the introductory letters, the term of service was two years and technically the founding board reached that term. I sent an email to the board to let them about the suspension and I only got one response—the lack of response here spoke volumes of where the current board was in terms of working on behalf of TWIYO.

When I started my outreach for new members, I thought about the people who were constantly helping to connect me with resources, meetings and introductions that could assist TWIYO in achieving our goals. I also reached out to a few candidates from the United Way’s BoardServeNYC list of matches. I also have made a more strategic approach that will be a mix of experienced and new Board candidates to help balance the stewardship and governance of TWIYO which I also believe is the hardest balance to achieve.

Lessons I learned

The role of a board for any nonprofit is to steer and guide the organization to success, especially in times of inertia and difficulty. Being a board member is not always about financial contributions (but that is an integral and necessary part); it still boils down to sharing your resources, network, and skills. And even greater than these is commitment. Commitment is what makes anyone respond to anything that they care about, work for it, and help make it better.

This experience has taught me about the importance of making tough decisions. Certain decisions might not be favorable or sit well with everyone but leadership is not always about pleasing people; it is about results and addressing issues that arise. I also know that eventually board development and recruitment will reside with the board members themselves so this means that having a board that is enthusiastic will only solicit more enthusiasm from others.

It’s not unheard of to start a nonprofit with your friends on the board; after all, in the beginning these people are often your biggest supporters and can give you the initial manpower you need to get going (and meet those all important legal requirements). Managing a board is a difficult thing to do as a social entrepreneur. But, like so many other aspects of this journey, this is just part of the terrain.

About The Author


In addition to founding and running The World is Your Oyster, Anne Desrosiers is a Nonprofit & Career Management Consultant, professional writer/blogger, and travel agent. On a personal mission to help others do good, live their passion and see the world, Anne is committed to making a difference while sharing her experiences in the process.

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