Bully!  The Scourge of Nonprofit Boards, and What to Do About It

How to handle the nonprofit board ogre.

Like every other human organization, a nonprofit board of directors is subject to being dominated by an internal bully. Nonprofit boards are actually 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.

The bully turns a nonprofit board into a corporation of one, and deprives the executive director (ED) and the agency of everyone else’s expertise and skills.

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. He is 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: meetings start early, whether or not people are there, and discussion is foreshortened with a remark such as, “We’ve got the report—let’s just vote.”  In the short term, the ED should gently say, “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.” He or she shuts down others’ opinions with a look of condescending pity for those lacking experience.  Interestingly, this brand of bully is rarely willing to serve as board chair (too busy with the other boards, perhaps). In the short term, the board chair and ED should 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 the expert bully 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 bully hopes to make everyone else feel guilty for having too much money and not enough sympathy for poor little Passive-Aggressive. In the short term, the board chair and ED can pretend not to hear what’s been said. In the medium and long term, ask other members of the board to pretend not to hear what’s been said. The only way to handle these bullies is to ignore them.

imageKelly Kleiman, who blogs as The Nonprofiteer, is a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays about the arts, philanthropy and women’s issues have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; and on websites including Aislesay.com and Artscope.net.

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  • Jack Hickey-Williams's avatar

    BY Jack Hickey-Williams

    ON May 1, 2008 01:15 PM

    I’ve served on a host of boards over the last 25 years and have seen each of these behaviors numerous times.  The most effective response that I have had as both board President and member, often the Secretary of the Board is to propose that we table the motion to make sure that all the Board members have had a chance to examine the policy.  Many people who are at first intimidated will immediately offer a second and the Board Chair or President will then ask for further discussion of the motion.  Most times one or two people who are thoroughly intimidated and often work for the Chairman or President will give weak opposition to table remarks.  At that point, I call for a vote and almost always it is passed by a very strong majority usually closet 75%. 
    That gives the Executive Director a chance to marshall the forces and prepare the committee members who worked on the policy for the next Board meeting.

  • Charles S. Shepherd III's avatar

    BY Charles S. Shepherd III

    ON May 1, 2008 03:58 PM

    Mr. Williams,

    I have never served on a board of any kind but I have observed and been the brunt of these behaviors my hole life.  Ms. Nonprofiteer has described these proclivities very apply and adaquately.  I find it a bit humorus that professional individuals of your stature are just becoming aware enough to start talking or rather using exopsitory means to describe them.  My first encounter was in elementary school and these behaviors were used against any other student who was held to be less popular.  The proclivities are learned early and are encouraged through the formative education years to the point that they become the means to the end for which the individual or individuals covet.  It is good that light is being shed on this subject because it is the same behavior profiles that you find in for-profit corperate board rooms, government positions on commitees, and in the elected positions of government at all levels, take the candidates running for president, do you see any of the profiles described by Ms. Nonprofiteer because I do!  Dealing with this behavior as it reflects on the governance of non-profits seem a bit short sighted and completely self-serving to those that have vested interests, 25 years, hum.  If such egregious behavior is to be dealt with don’t you think that it should be dealt with at the level it was introduced at.  Now you know why I have been the brunt of these behaviors my whole lift!  I don’t always preceive the situation the way that others want it preceived.  Non-profits do good things and sometimes not so good things with other peoples money and it is this that needs to be looked at and not how to create a quram by ganging up on someone who is only behaving the way society has rewarded him to.  Stay tuned, I read a lot, I read this, will you all grant me the same respect?

  • John Ireland's avatar

    BY John Ireland

    ON May 2, 2008 04:59 AM

    Although these stereotypcial behaviors certainly exist in and out of the boardroom, the solutions to successfully manage them are far more delicate and take more finese than prescribed or suggested.  An ED (CEO) who overtly confronts such behavior in the board room does so at the risk of his/her job.  This is especially so if the offender is the board chair!  The most effective way to prevent these negative and abusive behaviors is to head them off before they occur through very careful board selection and orientation.  Does a prospective board member play well with others?  If the answer is no, then they should never be a board member.  If they are a board member already, then their behavior needs to be confronted behind closed doors preferably one-on-one by the board chair.  If the offender is the board chair and you’re a board member, be prepared to suffer until his/her tem is over.  And if you’re the ED/CEO, start polishing up your resume!

  • FAR Social Enterprise's avatar

    BY FAR Social Enterprise

    ON May 4, 2008 09:50 PM

    Can we think of a more effective governance structure for not for profits? I have not experienced one effective not for profit board.  At best they have been ineffective and inoffensive and at worse they have been downright destructive with no one to answer to.

    I agree that the strategies needed by the ED/EO/CEO to work effectively with a board are diverse and numerable. Perhaps   we all spend way too much time trying to manage the board rather than delivering effective services?

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