3 major pitfalls for nonprofit boards

© Can Stock Photo / NomadSoul1

In my experience there are three major pitfalls that can affect the ability of a nonprofit board of directors to fulfill its duty and serve its organization.

Pitfall 1 – lack of immediate feedback

In many cases, nonprofit boards are dealing with matters whose results will occur sometime in the future—next month, next year, or years down the line. Sometimes the people who make a decision will not even be serving on the board when its consequences unfold.

If raising our member fees by 10% means that 30% of our members fail to renew, we are in trouble, but it will take a while to discover it. Having no specific outcome in view can make folks a little heedless. As Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Pitfall 2 – putting things off

Often boards are grappling with issues that are important but not urgent. It is all too easy to think, “Well, we don’t have to make a decision yet,” and postpone the matter to another meeting. It takes energy and character to face tough issues. This is where a good chair or president can help focus the board and its deliberations. A board has a fundamental duty to set the direction of the organization. Drift is not a direction.

Pitfall 3 – diffuse responsibility

By its nature, a board is a collective body. Each individual member is responsible for their own action. Sometimes it feels as if, as a result, nobody is responsible for the board’s action. Members have to take a balanced perspective, knowing that their work is collective, yet at the same time, each member has the duty of studying the matter carefully and bringing their best thinking to the task. Remember to—gently—hold each other accountable.

Volunteer leaders who keep these pitfalls in mind can help their board avoid them. We must be vigilant and energetic if we are to exercise properly the authority which, by law and custom, lies in the hands of directors of nonprofit organizations.

Does this resonate with you? Tell me about it!

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Ann Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and nonprofit board directors and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments.


  1. Jim Lohr Ph. D., C.P.P. and R.P. Ames, Iowa on January 13, 2020 at 7:19 pm

    If Samuel Johnson was correct, your non-profit would also lose 100% of the members it hanged! So keep an eye on that statistic as well. Keep up the good work, Ann. Jim Lohr – jlohr10@mchsi.com

    Ann, I always encourage leaders of a group event to have name-tags for everyone. Having name-tags breaks down some of the barriers to not speaking to others. Especially as we age, we tend to forget names (I’m 75 – that happens to me a lot.) Then not remembering a name from someone you have previously met, also raises a guilt factor which makes reaching out even less likely. In group events, most of the regular members will know some or all of the leaders (officers) and some of the officers will know several of the members. But few of the regular members may know most or all of the other regular members. Name-tags help establish communication among regular members, building short-term and maybe even, long-term, bonding. Then you are less likely to lose members. Just a thought for your consideration.

    • Ann Macfarlane on January 13, 2020 at 7:53 pm

      Jim, always great to hear from you. I love the reasons you offer for name-tags, they are so important! Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts. Sending appreciation!