The danger of the “Well-Meaning” but Toxic Board Member or Volunteer….

From the title you knew who I was talking about didn’t you? You know, that volunteer or board member who “means well”, the “I have a little extra time on my hands”, or the “I am a specialist in “X” and I see we are not doing this as an organization. Perhaps I can help?” person.

I used to hate this type of individual. I used to think they were the worst kind of board member or volunteer. Heck, I may have even been one once, till I experienced it on the other side. They were micromanagers, often very successful people that mean well and who felt that they had the best interest of the organization at heart. To their credit they are often specialists in their field, but it is like they do not know when to stop. They think they “know” how the organization should operate and will not hesitate to try and nudge you towards change.

They often begin slowly. They may help out with something once or twice. They may offer advice. From here, their “helping” knows no bounds. They will infiltrate and use their “helping” to sweetly lure you into giving them more information. Then they start to get nosey. They will call at all hours asking/demanding information. They will spend more hours doing something then asked, for no real reason, apart from the fact they are “digging”. They will use this information to build a case against the way you are doing things. All in the name of helping.

I have seen these individuals infiltrate boards of directors, volunteer roles and even get themselves hired as consultants or staff of an organization. I have seen them make it their personal mission to take down an executive director or manager who they “deem” to not be doing their job right. I have seen them try to shut down organizations, contact funders to cancel contracts and try and get money sent back to donors. All with no real justification or reason, apart from their “feelings” that something is wrong and needs to be fixed, or because you get in their cross hairs.

Characteristics of these Individuals

  • Either financially independent and have too much time on their hands or down and out and looking for a job
  • They are very risk adverse and very negative about everything
  • They have been on a lot of boards in the past (maybe even too many)
  • They know a lot of people (or at least claim too)
  • They constantly overstep boundaries, as a volunteer, as a board member or a supporter
  • Start out as “super sweet” or passive aggressive, and then turn full aggressive
  • They like to cite specific government or financial regulations, but seem to never be fully clear on the full scope of the regulations
  • They love to revamp things and especially like doing five year strategic plans (even though you finished yours last week. They are the ones at the close of board meetings, that say “just one more thing….” and then you are there another two hours)
  • They are the ones at the close of board meetings, that say “just one more thing….” and then you are there another two hours

What to Do With These Individuals

As organizations who always need volunteers for boards or for our organization, we are taught never to refuse a volunteer. In some cases these individuals are toxic and you cannot let them near your staff or your other board members. Please let me be clear that what I am suggesting is not stacking your organization with Pollyanna types, but rather not allowing someone who needs a “project” to use your organization for their personal fulfillment or vendetta.

Instead, I have some tricks that I have used in the past to help screen out for these types of individuals. One of them, is that when they come to me or an ED giving “advice” about an area that needs fixing, I instead give them “special projects”, that “only they” could do for me.

Examples of this are : identifying project areas for us to go into, preparing a report on changing legislation and how it will affect the organization, identifying new supporters/funders/fundraising ideas that they feel could “help” they organization. I make sure it is research focused so that these individuals cannot say they “represent” the organization. Instead, they are given responsibility for a mini-project, that gives you the ability to see how they interact and work with your board or team.

These kinds of mini-projects, also help to identify whether they are really dedicated to your organization, or are just bored/need a job. It allows you to screen these individuals before they come onto your board and/or join your organization. If they can contain their toxicity and their focus in the “mini-project” perhaps they can be trusted to be a good board member or volunteer.

We have other strategies we use, and we identify those within our course on how to select and find good board members.

Have I Gone Too Far?

Think I am over reacting? I have seen long-tenured Executive Directors fired or almost fired several times. We have been called by members to pull together a new board hours before the existing board was going to shut down the entire organization (without properly consulting the members). I have come in as a board member after the previous board ok’d a merger, which nearly bankrupted an organization that previously had a really healthy budget for almost 30+ years.

Toxic board members and volunteers, like toxic people, exist everywhere. Next, we will talk about other strategies to find out and weed out these individuals from your organizations.

Think I am going too far? What has your experience been? I would love to hear your comments and stories on this issue.

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