It’s Not You, It’s Me – Breaking Up with a Board

exit-sign-2By Makiyah Moody, Governance Initiatives Director

I have the privilege to serve on several boards that I really enjoy.  Board leadership has provided me with personal and professional insights while increasing my skill set to solve problems, work with challenging people and communicate more effectively.  The right volunteer board experience can be a total win: fulfilling, impactful, and a real opportunity to contribute to the public good.

But what happens when the experience is depressing instead of delightful?  When should a board member decide to bow out?  Here are five reasons to break up with a board:

  • Time – Sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions with increased work or family commitments. If you’re serving on a board and your calendar has been booked up with other priorities to the point you are unable to fulfill your duty of care by attending meetings, it’s time to bow out. Consider other ways you can support the organization without filling a board seat halfway.
  • Boredom – I can’t think of many people who enjoy being bored. If the substance of board meetings is not energizing, it’s not clear how your contributions make a difference to the organization, or the meeting structure is routine and underwhelming, it’s worth considering whether this particular board is worth your time.  According to Leading with Intent, a report by BoardSource, “board engagement includes a combination of active board member participation, passion for the mission, a true understanding of the organization, and an appreciation of the right level of board involvement.” Before jumping ship right away, however, make recommendations to increase engagement and effectiveness. (Chances are that if you are bored and counting the minutes until adjournment that other board members are in the same boat and the organization is not realizing the full potential of the collective board.)  If your recommendations are not explored, it’s time to bow out.
  • Reputational Risk – The unique thing about board governance is that the board’s work is premised on the idea that team beats individual. The board makes decisions by setting policy and taking action through voting. If the board makes a decision that doesn’t pass the smell test and may result in legal action or horrible headlines, it’s time to bow out. Board service should never put you in a compromising ethical or moral situation where your reputation or good standing in the community is at risk.
  • Unhealthy Relationships – The value of a board is that there is a collective brain to maximize results. A board’s culture is an important component that relies heavily on healthy relationships and trust.  Who wants to feel obligated to attend a meeting where there is tension or discomfort that ends up being a drain on one’s mental state?  If you can feel resentment breeding towards fellow board members that has not been resolved through proactive communication, it’s time to bow out.
  • Insiders versus Outsiders – Dissent and robust discussion are generally signs of a healthy board. The diversity of thought, expertise, experience and background that board members bring to their governing duties makes disagreement a reality.  If disagreement, however, becomes the norm and the board remains split on key decisions, it may be worth exploring fit.  Determining the best way forward requires a push and pull tension, but if the actions of the board result in an “us versus them” dynamic, then the board is in danger.  If it’s not possible to reset the board as a collaborative body with a shared understanding of what success for the organization looks like, then it may be time to bow out.

Though it’s called volunteering, board service is a real job. To get the most out of the experience requires commitment, capacity and courage – commitment to the organization’s mission, capacity to contribute time and expertise, and courage to bow out if the situation is not a win-win for you and the organization.


For more governance resources, visit The Top Shelf page and check out our Resource Library. This article was originally posted by Makiyah Moody on LinkedIn.