Nonprofit Board Member Controversy

It happens from time to time.  A Board member says or does something out of character with the Board they represent.  In some cases, there is a clear course of action to take, but sometimes it is not so simple.  How the Board reacts in these grayer situations speaks volumes about their understanding of the responsibilities of a Board. In these cases doing what is right is not always the same as doing what is popular.  This article will take a look at the phases of Board member controversy referring to a recent example and consider the Board’s reaction.

Over the past year or so there have been a number of issues with the actions of a Board member or a full Board.  These are not situations of criminal activities, they are essentially decisions taken that have caused a stir and they tend to follow similar paths.

Controversy Phases

An Issue Arises

For argument’s sake, let’s say your organization is a world-renowned science museum. It is revealed that one of your Board members is a climate change denier and that a narrative associated with one of your museum’s exhibits has a questionable description of the impact of people on the environment.

Someone Complains

A group of scientists author a letter and protesters appear outside your museum.  They demand the head of the denier (okay, just a resignation would suffice).

The Board Reacts

The Board issues a statement clearly indicating that Board members do not influence exhibit narratives as that is the job of the curator.

The Pundits Come Out and The Media Picks Sides

Local news picks up the story, which soon becomes a nationwide concern.  The nonprofit media adds their two cents about Board responsibilities and throws around concepts like integrity.

And Then Something Else Happens

Eventually the story loses steam, or it doesn’t, and the Board is left to recover from any backlash and get back to the mission.


Board Duty Reminder

To put the issue into context, the Board is responsible for overseeing the operations of the nonprofit organization.  They have a few specific duties, namely;

  • Care – exercising good judgement via reasonable decision-making
  • Loyalty – operate in the best interest of the organization
  • Obedience – support the organization’s mission

The duties are described with more detail and context in a post from the folks at and can be accessed via this link.

In the situation above, the key issue was the belief that the Board member in question couldn’t perform these duties. This was due to actions taken outside of the organization that demonstrated disbelief in a near universally accepted scientific position.  Hence, the integrity of the Board was in question.


A Board Decision

The Board appears to have recognized that the personal views of one member rarely impact the integrity of the Board.  The Board chose to de-politicize the issue by explaining the unreasonableness of the concern that the Board member influenced the exhibit narrative.  Of course, that answer is not going to satisfy everyone, and the museum may suffer from the controversy.

Ignoring the punditry, only the Board can determine if the actions of a Board member meet or do not meet the duties.  The Board is ultimately responsible for determining when and if a member’s actions negatively impact the organization and if that impact outweighs the individual’s value to the organization.


Bottom Line

With pretty much every facet of life being politicized, it is increasingly difficult for Boards to avoid some type of controversy.  Responding to a controversy is an exceedingly difficult task as balancing the good of the organization can be a tough call.  The first step is to remove the rhetoric and get to the heart of the issue or concern and address it. That step may not always resolve the situation, but it will be a solid step in the right direction.

The next Not for Profit Beyond the Numbers post explores steps that Boards can take to minimize Board member controversies.


A summary of the Board issue referenced above is available from the folks at NPQ via this link

Has your organization weathered a Board member controversy?  Please share your experiences in the comments section.


Learn more about 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:

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

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