How to Keep Ex-Board Members Close (But Not Too Close)

Preserving relationships with former board members can be complicated, and the temptation to cut them off entirely is strong. But a sense of balance and inclusion can reduce feelings of meddling.

When board members have ended their tenures, their tenures should end.

That sounds painfully tautological, I know, but governance has a way of warping logic. Plenty of associations have had the experience of past volunteer leaders looking for ways to participate in the association’s work after the term ends. The enthusiasm is admirable, and nonprofitdom is acculturated to the notion of never turning away an enthusiastic volunteer. But often that participation involves dictating guidance to a governing body that can would like to handle its duties without extra unsolicited input from the people who used to be in charge.

All of which is to say that it’s not surprising that John Barnes felt the need to put his foot down and deliver a firm message to those ex-board members: Go away.

I have seen a number of occasions where the past-president has not behaved well.

In a blog post last week titled “Association Board Leaders: Move Gracefully Off the Scene,” Barnes, President of Barnes Association Consultants, exhorted former volunteer leaders to “stop. Move on. Your time is done. Let other leaders come to the fore… New leaders, younger leaders.” Such exes can be available to offer advice, of course—if they’re asked. But mainly he encourages them to “see a movie, read a book, or take a walk in the park.”

This is advice struck me as understandable, but a bit funereal—it’s the end of a board stint, not our last professional act before we shuffle off this mortal coil. And I do think former board members can play a valuable role (more on that in a moment). But I asked Barnes to clarify what he feels those leaders can do.

First off, he says, associations would do well to dispense with past-president roles or similar caretaker positions. “Once a president has completed their service, he/she can make themselves available to answer questions or offer advice as the new president needs or the situation warrants.” And the president doesn’t need a formal board seat to play that role.

Moreover, he adds, “I also have seen a number of occasions where the past-president has not behaved well and provided resistance to the president as they attempted to do their work and lead the board.” A board is very often a projection of the chair’s vision, and former chairs can often have a hard time seeing things through that lens. “Having [past presidents] sit on the board makes it more difficult for the board to move forward because the past president is present and people don’t want to suggest new changes if the past president’s feelings might be hurt,” he says.

But the same sense of vision that can make former leaders seem as if they’re interfering—even meddling—is the exact reason why you can’t cut them off entirely. In 2015 I wrote about the experience of Steve R. Smith, CAE, executive director of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, who received some blunt pushback from a former board member who was feeling neglected after he’d wrapped up his term.

The solution in AAHPM’s case was fairly straightforward: Former leaders didn’t so much want to work the association’s levers themselves so much as they wanted to know what leadership was doing, so Smith scheduled occasional informational calls with former past-presidents. And once informed, they’ve rarely felt moved to do anything that might qualify as interference.

Barnes agrees that former board members can play roles with the association beyond waiting on standby for consultation. “A really great role for past-presidents is to serve on a committee/task force for the association,” he says. “Having a balance of older leaders with new young leaders on a committee often improves the work product and provides a mentorship possibility.”

And he stresses that the urge to lead doesn’t have to end with that particular association. Former leaders, young and old, should consider leadership roles at other organizations—which, Barnes suggests, has a way of helping to support the one they just left. “I think [volunteering for another association] is often undervalued,” he says. “Having a former member leader volunteer at another association has the possibility of improving relationships and collaborations between organizations and spread positive news about your association.”

What do you do to keep former volunteer leaders involved—but perhaps not too involved—in your association’s work after their tenures are over? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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