How to Handle a Loose Cannon on Your Non-Profit Board
Board members are the heavy artillery your organization needs to make things happen … unless they become loose cannons. In that case, the impact on an organization’s plans can be disastrous.
What is a loose cannon?
Nautical in its origin, a loose cannon was one that broke free from its moorings during a battle or foul weather. It barreled across the deck, rolling over anything in its way. Unless it was tethered quickly, it caused significant damage.
A loose cannon on a non-profit board is quite similar. S/he is a board member who acts independently, without board consent. S/he often believes his or her actions are in the best interest of the organization. Unfortunately, if left unaddressed, a loose cannon on a non-profit board can distract the organization from its plans, or even sink them completely.
Here are a few examples of loose cannons on boards ….
Loose Cannon Example 1: After an intense strategic planning process, the board approves an ambitious strategic plan designed to reduce homelessness. A local television station interviews one board member who is not an authorized spokesperson. He announces a high-profile initiative that was discussed but not included in the final strategic plan.
Loose Cannon Example 2: A service club establishes a budget for the 2017 year. After it is established, the board treasurer learns that some Rotary clubs reimburse expenses to officers who attend Rotary conferences. When she learns the VP Membership is struggling to cover the cost of attending the district conference, she writes a check from club funds to cover the difference.
Loose Cannon Example 3: A home owners’ association’s residents are unhappy with a vendor’s service quality. The board discusses taking the service out for bids. Before the board can identify new vendors, the president renews the contract with the existing vendor.
Here’s how to handle loose cannons ….
If the loose cannon is a paid staff member, the answer is relatively simple: coach, counsel and/or terminate. On the other hand, a loose cannon on your board is trickier to handle.
Preventing Loose Cannons
It is far easier to prevent a loose cannon than it is to tether one in the midst of a storm. Here are four ways you can prevent your heavy artillery from tearing loose:
- Have a strong on-boarding process. A strong board orientation program ensures your board knows the boundaries of appropriate behavior. Include an overview of board member roles and responsibilities, a detailed discussion of the organization’s long-term and shorter-term plans, and how to handle media inquiries. A strong orientation might have prevented Loose Cannon Example 1, above.
- Use job descriptions. Every board position, from president to director-at-large, should have a job description detailing their roles and responsibilities. Be sure to update these periodically.
- Have strong board policies in place. Board policies cover topics specific to the board, such as expense reimbursement policies. Operational boards for organizations with few or no paid staff will require more policies than boards whose role is confined more strictly to governance. The board, or a subcommittee, should review policies periodically to ensure relevance. Written board policies may have prevented Loose Cannon Example 2, above.
- Be clear about the plan. Once a plan is in place, it is important to review it routinely. This helps ensure the organization is progressing against plan. It also helps prevent inadvertent loose cannons, when busy volunteers’ recollections of plan details become fuzzy.
Restraining Loose Cannons
Once a board member has become a loose cannon, it can be harder to get him or her tethered before damage is done. Sometimes, this is because their actions have already caused issues. In other cases, the board member’s attitude or behaviors have become too ingrained to change. The sooner you address the issue, the less damage s/he may cause. Here’s the progression of steps to take:
- Talk to the board member. Direct conversations can be difficult. However, sometimes the issue is a simple misunderstanding. For example, board members with corporate backgrounds might be more accustomed to a hierarchical structure where officers have more authority than the rest of the organization to make decisions. However, in a non-profit, every member of the board has equal power unless the board has delegated power through its bylaws or policies.
- Include a broader group in the discussion. If the first conversation does not address the issue, consider including others in the conversation: the board chair or president, the executive committee, paid staff members, or even the entire board. Approaching the board member with a broader group may increase the member’s likelihood of listening. This is particularly true when the board member is the president, as was the case in Loose Cannon Example 3.
- Include disagreement in minutes. If the loose cannon operates within board meetings by forcing an issue or bullying others into an adverse decision, ask the board secretary to record your disagreement in the minutes for the meeting.
- Terminate the board member. If coaching does not produce the desired results, it may be time to ask the board member for his or her resignation. Of course, they may refuse to resign. In this case, you should look to your bylaws for guidance on how to proceed.
- Seek legal counsel. If the damage is costly, as it was in the third example above, you may want to consult an attorney to determine whether the loose cannon can be held financially responsible for his or her actions or whether the organization can avoid unanticipated costs through legal action.
Have you dealt with a loose cannon?
Share your experiences in a comment to this article.
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