When I first started joining the Boards of Directors of various organizations in Richmond, I was intimidated by the thought of learning the proper procedures and cultural norms that dictated successful participation. What I found was that each and every organization seems to do things completely differently, and often seem to be making it up as they go along. Yes, there are the Robert's Rules of Order and the bylaws to follow, but there's still such a wide range of behaviors related to joining, serving on, and leaving boards, and it's been fascinating to learn all about it.
One aspect of board culture that seems to be in total chaos everywhere is how a board member can leave a board of directors before their natural term is up in a positive and professional way. Based on my own experiences - sometimes as a board member who did a poor job of leaving early, sometimes as a board leader who was disappointed in how others parted ways - I've some unsolicited advice to offer:
- Don't Board Fade. Board Fading is the practice of slowly and quietly starting to disengage from the life of the organization. First you miss a few meetings, then you miss a few more without even sending your regrets, then you stop paying attention to the e-mail listserv, and then you just stop caring altogether. It's a common and tempting practice in the world of ridiculous conflicting priorities, but it leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth, I think. If you find that you cannot serve out your duties as a board member, confront that head on and do something about it.
- Don't Resign by E-Mail or Voicemail. Ultimately, boards are still groups of people who have relationships with each other as they work to achieve some common goals. I think we owe each other the courtesy and care that comes with talking face-to-face about the things in our relationships that are difficult. To resign from a board with an e-mail or voicemail message is not only unprofessional, it does not provide any closure. You should take the time to meet with the board president or some other representative, and talk about why you're leaving, what kind of relationship you'd like to have with the organization in the future, and what could have been done differently. If you still want to put your resignation in writing for everyone else, that's fine.
- Don't let past board members become ghosts. If you're in a leadership role on a board that someone is leaving early, or even if you're not, the resignation discussion is not the end of the process. The person was originally on the board for a reason, and so it's worth it to find out why their board experience didn't match up with those original expectations. Your development efforts will also benefit from finding ways to maintain contact with the former board member, so that they can remain an informal spokesperson for the organization, and continue to offer their own support (volunteering, financial contributions, or otherwise). Just because they can't come to board meetings any more doesn't mean they can't still participate.
- Don't speak ill of your former organizational colleagues. Or, at least don't speak ill of them to others without first communicating your concerns directly to them first. Like all relationships, just because there's a shift in its status, it doesn't mean that you're free to be reckless in your comments about it to others. You may find that you have other connections to those people that matter to you in the future, or that another organization you want to join will hear about how this parting of ways went and what was said. If you have concerns about how things were handled, work that out with the person(s) involved, don't gossip about them.
That's what I've got for now. The theme here, of course, is to try to live out organizational relationships with the same intentionality, humanity and sensitivity that you would use in personal relationships. I think we sometimes forget that organizations (even the largest corporate enterprises) are just groups of individual people, most of them trying to do the best they can.
If you have experience in the parting of ways with an organization's board of directors or similar kinds of "endings," feel free to share the practices and principles that you think should help shape those acts.