Ways to Avoid Board Member Controversies

Boards are made up of people and people often have an innate ability to generate controversy.  These issues can quickly escalate and engulf an organization and its Board.  The best way to deal with Board member controversies may be to avoid them. This article will discuss several of the most effective avoidance techniques, focusing on setting expectations and engaging Board members.

In a prior post, the Phases of Board Member Controversies were discussed, check out that post here


Setting Expectations

Boards can establish clear expectations about how members avoid or deal with potentially controversial situations. They can use policies and processes to do so. Communicate these clearly and review them on a recurring basis.

Board Candidate Interview

The Board member interview process should include a discussion on candidates’ activities with other organizations, specifically controversial ones.  The Board may choose to avoid a candidate with strong ties to an organization that has a history of controversy.  The interview is the perfect time to establish the organization’s expectation that members will avoid controversies whenever possible.

For more on how to avoid selecting rogue Board members, see this Nonprofit Center post; Board Members Gone Wild



The Board Orientation process should include specific instructions for dealing with controversial topics and should remind members that they represent the organization. Make it clear that the organization expects Board members to avoid controversy whenever possible. The orientation should also address steps the member should take if they feel they are headed toward an issue, as well as, explicit steps in the event they have initiated a controversy.

Ethics Policy

The organization’s Ethics Policy should address situations that may cause controversy, such as demonstrations, interviews or other public speaking engagements at political events.  In these situations, the member needs to consider the impact their actions may have on the organization. Ensure consequences for participating in these activities are clear.

External Communication Policy

Some organizations require employees (including Board members) to provide organization-related communications (such as interviews or articles) to leadership or a member of the communications department prior to publication. Instruct members to qualify any external communication as “expressed views of the individual that do not reflect the views of the organization.”  A Board member is much more likely to be considered a representative of the organization. They should ensure their personal views are not ascribed to the organization.

Conflict of Interest

This policy typically applies to areas where a Board member has a relationship with a person or company that does business with the organization. The policy requires disclosure to ensure that the related party does not receive preferential treatment.  This policy should include annual recertification of potential conflicts, as well as, a clear process for discussing issues between certifications.

Controversies can arise when someone outside of the organization learns of a relationship that they feel has the potential for a conflict of interest.  This perception can be on a much broader scale and may be outside the scope of a typical Conflict of Interest policy.   To avoid issues, members should disclose relationships that might have the appearance of a conflict.



To avoid controversial situations, it isn’t good enough to simply communicate expectations.  Controversies can spring up unexpectedly from what may be seen as an innocent situation. In addition, areas of potential controversy change as the organization changes. Therefore, it is important that Board members engage each other during and outside of the Board meetings. Having conversations about potential controversial topics is an excellent way to reinforce expectations and identify possible problems before they occur.


Taking an Interest

There are formal and informal engagement techniques.  The Board may have a mentoring process that pairs existing members with new members.  Board members may have similar interests or have other organizations in common, so it should be natural for members to interact outside if the Board room.  Members should value this interaction and should be proactive in seeking it out.

Off the Clock Board Conversations

Prior to meetings or at breaks or dinner, Board members should have general conversations about members’ activities.  The idea is to get to know each other better, but these informal discussions may surface a sensitive issue or a perspective that could raise a flag about a potential issue.

Boards should also discuss relevant topics and trends in the organization’s sub-sector, as well as, broader related topics that are generating sharply opposing viewpoints.  Chairs can guide these discussions towards topics that are of interest to or are likely to impact the organization in some significant way.  The Board acts as a sounding board for potential issues.



Bottom Line

Boards cannot entirely avoid member controversies, but they can consider relationships with controversial organizations before electing a member.  They can also establish expectations about how members should act in a public forum and set standards on how members represent themselves in relation to the organization. In addition, Boards can engage with members to identify any potentially controversial topics they are passionate about.   These techniques can help the Board avoid issues or at a minimum provide early warning to allow the Board time to determine its position and prepare for controversies that may come.


What does your nonprofit Board do to avoid Board member controversies?  Please share your experiences in the comments section.


Interested in other nonprofit leadership topics? Check out the nonprofit leadership blog:  Not for Profit Beyond the Numbers

If you have questions or would like a consultation on a nonprofit leadership issue, contact me at:  mfcade@nfpbeyondthenumbers.com

For more about the author, follow this link:  Michael F. Cade, CPA, CGMA