A Board Member’s Health Versus a Nonprofit’s Need

I learned of a small nonprofit that had to deal with a board member who was not able to fulfill his responsibilities due to cancer. A colleague of mine, whom I’ll call Jim, said to me there was a “raging internal debate” about whether to keep this person or force the individual to resign.

Jim’s nonprofit is a small organization with a budget of less than $500,000. The board of directors is instrumental in helping the charity raise money for its social programs. The board person with cancer had been active up to the point when he got sick and was someone who was responsible for helping the organization raise five-figure gifts.

What would you do?

Both Sides of the Issue

Putting aside, whether it’s right or wrong to push out an individual from the board, at Jim’s nonprofit there was a robust discussion on both sides of the issue as to whether or not to retain the volunteer who had cancer. Here are some of the points that Jim said were discussed internally:

Reasons to Request the Resignation of the Board Member

  • Board member commitment: At Jim’s nonprofit, members of the board have to sign an annual agreement stating they must attend quarterly meetings and raise at least $5,000 each for the privilege of serving on the board. This board person had not fulfilled either of these two requirements, as well as others (such as engaging in committee work) due to cancer treatments. Jim also noted that this individual had been raising $30,000 to $50,000 annually, which made a dent in the budget.
  • Bylaws: Also, the bylaws of the charity stated that a director who failed to meet the responsibilities as set out in the board agreement that was signed by each person annually, he or she would have to relinquish their seat at the conclusion of the year at the annual board meeting.

Another point in the bylaws stated that there were a minimum and a maximum number of members; meaning that in this case, the board person with cancer was not fulfilling his commitments, and the organization could not bring in a new board member without someone resigning.

  • Quorum: There was a risk of not being able to attain a quorum for important board meetings and motions. It could potentially place the organization at risk.
  • Board Responsibilities: The board has legal and governance responsibilities. The points above possibly put the nonprofit in a precarious and risky position with its finances, governance and regulatory responsibilities. And, if this could be the case, wasn’t there a greater obligation for the integrity of those served than for the sick individual?

Reasons to Accommodate the Board Member

  • Moral Obligation. The opposing side of the discussion, including Jim, said that as a matter of integrity and compassion, the organization owed it to the board member to provide flexibility. Cancer is an extenuating circumstance that no one wants to have and the organization could do things to accommodate the director at the discretion of the board. The people with this view point stated that there was a moral and human obligation to the individual and to figure out how to make it work.
  • Optics to the Public. We know that we live in a world that is very quick to judge. And, while those that thought it was more prudent to ask the person to resign, there was thought that this could make the organization appear inhumane and needlessly cruel in the eyes of the public, which may not fully understand the rationale.

If you were the executive director of this nonprofit, what would you do?

Options for a Board Member in Need

Ultimately, the board member was not asked to resign the board, and he was supported. The organization figured out ways to accommodate him and not jeopardize the nonprofit’s ability to function as it had been to that point. Asking this person to remove himself would have been a mistake on so many levels, such as moral, business, branding, and humane. So, what could you do if you find yourself in a situation with a board member who needs time off to deal with critical personal issues:

  • Remember that few of us pass through this life unscathed. Everyone is fighting a battle you may not know. Kindness and compassion when someone is struggling, especially in something like cancer, go a long way.
  • Ensure your board bylaws have a stipulation, on a case by case basis, which allows board members to take a leave of absence. If you don’t have this in your bylaws, get on that today.

In this case, this board member had a frank conversation with the board chair, and because he was a responsible person and community leader, he told the board chair that if asked, he would resign. As I understand it, the chairs’ reply was, “absolutely not.” They were able to give the cancer-stricken individual with a leave of absence. Other members of the board and the staff stepped up and found ways to plug the deficit in revenue and complete the work the sick board member was not able to provide.

At the end of the day, the board member eventually went into remission and was appreciative of his treatment by the board of directors and the senior team. He ended up giving more money to the organization that treated him with kindness, respect, compassion, and humanity.

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