8. Over Board

Sarah Tober
5 min readSep 7, 2022


How a couple of toxic board members can take down the ship

“Pigs in the Bay” Photo taken by me at Staniel Cay during my maiden bare boat voyage in 2017.

When I started out as an executive director of a statewide nonprofit, I had no idea what a functional board composition should look like or where to start on that process. Little did I know that your board should include a practicing lawyer (or at least one that has practiced in the last decade), a CPA, and a few connectors who are willing, experienced, and able to help fundraise.

If the nonprofit you are considering leading does not have a board that is already recruiting new board members and fundraising then RUN.

I knew the board I inherited was… older… (everyone was 70+) and had all of only six members for a statewide organization and each member had been on the board for at least 10 years. However, I’m an optimist and believed that I could in fact turn this organization around and make it relevant. While I achieved that for one hot minute of the organization’s nearly 50 year history, I underestimated The Relics.

A couple of the Relics were “lawyers” who were no longer practicing, but they convinced the new board members that they were the experts on how to run the organization and the executive committee’s legal obligations.

When new board members have no real nonprofit experience, the Relics can appear intimidating especially when techniques like gaslighting and bullying are utilized.

Here is an example of how dangerous these Relics can be… The Relics at my organization convinced the rest of the executive committee board members to give nearly all of my statewide nonprofit’s assets to an organization that did not have a 501(c)3. This move was to the extreme financial detriment (think nearly $750,000) of the nonprofit I was leading along with a heap of separation-related debt, meanwhile setting up the other organization (that had not even achieved 501(c)3 status) long-term financial success. This decision did not go to the complete board either and was made in the vacuum of the Executive Committee (EC). Also, I should mention that these Relics served on that other organization’s board and advisory board, which is a legal conflict of interest.

Here are my top five lessons learned in board development:

1. Following The Rules | Everyone on the board should understand and utilize Robb’s Rules. If you think of it as a form of speech (parliamentarian based for sure) it makes it more palatable. This is just legal structure to meetings, nothing to get worried about, but definitely ensures decorum and proper meeting minutes are taken. When I read an open letter at the EC meeting regarding my role being directed by this group to give nearly all of our assets away while I endured verbal abuse by the Relics and board leadership, no one said a word. Later, the EC tried to omit my letter from the minutes because “it made them look fiscally irresponsible.” That’s when I knew I had to leave the organization. Not only is that nefarious to omit an open letter from the minutes, but it was also dangerous for me to stay with an organization whose board leaders were not following proper procedure and were not fundraising as they incurred an incredible financial deficit.

2. Training| I wish I had the onboarding process and training in place before bringing on new members. There should be an agreed upon protocol for bringing on new board members and immediate engagement. Board members should be actively helping with recruiting new members and DEI should be front and center of this work. Your local or state nonprofit association has great resources and for an expansive budget you can bring in a facilitator.


3. Strategic Planning | There should be a current strategic plan in place or a planning process facilitated that empowers organizational leadership to move the mission forward. It really is impossible to take on nonprofit leadership without knowing where the organization is headed. How else will you be able to know the benchmarks to success or follow the map to the mission treasure? A strategic plan is a buy-in practice that allows stakeholders to provide a place for shared goals. Without this, the organization has no road map.

4. Building a Dynamic Board Composition | Nonprofits can no longer be boys clubs or homogenous boards that look like the organizational founders. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), must drive the board composition along with varied regional, industry, and wealth representation. Anyone standing in the way of DEI on the board is most likely a Relic.

5. Beware of the Relics | Relics relish control and want board members that will easily do their bidding with staff members who serve their egos. Relics want things to be done their way and tend to work in ways that does not set up the organization for long term success, sustainability, or even scalability. Because Relics will strangle good ideas, push out good people, and hold the organization down, they must be removed by strong board chairs and members. Rooting out bad board members early will save the organization years of setbacks in growth and mission accomplishment.

“The Basics: Just as for any corporation, the board of directors of a nonprofit has three primary legal duties known as the “duty of care,” “duty of loyalty,” and “duty of obedience.”

Good board members inspire the staff and organization to blossom. Like a good gardener they understand when they need to help and cultivate growth and when to step back and let the natural elements work. Good leadership in staff and the board will recognize those good board members and keep them engaged. Boards will always be challenging on some level and a contrarian board member or two is to be expected. However, the most successful nonprofits feature a balanced board that is passionate about the organization’s mission and understands how to work together in unison.



Sarah Tober