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Blog > Warning Signs of a Board in Trouble

Warning Signs of a Board in Trouble

posted on Apr 16, 2019

By Maria Lahiffe

Your organization does important work, for a segment of society that really needs your service. That is why you need to make sure your organizational structures are strong, so that you can continue to meet that need and even hopefully improve your service delivery.

Many people on boards maintain their focus on the service delivery and the clients who need their service, which is totally understandable. After all, it is passion for your organization’s mission which prompted you to choose that organization in the first place, out of 3000 non-profits in the Ottawa area who could use you. The problem is, however, that focusing exclusively outside the organization can lead to a weakening of the organization itself. In extreme cases, the organization weakens so much that it has to cease operations.

The following list of warning signs came out of a study of 20 Canadian not-for-profit organizations [1]. Each of these was observed in one or more of the organizations which had experienced serious problems in governance at some point in their recent history prior to the study.

Human Resources:

  • Rapid turnover of CEO’s (this was an unmistakable sign in four cases)
  • Major turnover of board members
  • Difficulty recruiting or retaining credible board members

Financial and Organizational Performance:

  • Chronic unplanned and/or unmanaged deficits
  • Rapid depletion of reserve funds
  • Call for outside audit or operational review by funders or other key stakeholders
  • Persistent failure to meet individual or organizational performance targets


  • Poor attendance at board and committee meetings
  • Low level of participation in discussions at meetings
  • Meetings poorly managed; lack of focus, agendas circulated late, members unprepared

Board Culture:

  • Underground communications. Lots of ‘corridor talk’ and political maneuvering outside the meetings
  • Distrust among board members or between the board and CEO not being addressed
  • Poor communication between the CEO and board chair or the full board
  • Unresolved conflicts within the board
  • Conflict of interest issues not being confronted
  • Board members feeling too far removed from ‘what’s going on in the organization’
  • Insiders and outsiders; board dividing into factions
  • Growing minority of disaffected board members


  • Regular ‘rubber-stamping’ of CEO recommendations without meaningful debate
  • Preoccupation with operational detail rather than ‘big picture’ issues
  • Board interference in operational detail…particularly personnel and collective bargaining
  • Poor communication with key stakeholders
  • Decision deadlock or paralysis
  • Board members ignoring or circumventing Board policies and decisions
  • CEO ignoring or circumventing Board policies and decisions

If you are seeing these warning signs, then you must do something. Complacency could potentially mean the end of this organization which means so much to you.

What now?

To get some guidance on what you might do in these circumstances, come to an upcoming workshop at Volunteer Ottawa.

Board 101: A First View

This short workshop offers a first look at becoming a board member for a charity or non-profit organization. The workshop invites you to a conversation about what is asked of you as a board member. Participants will develop confidence and understand how they can make an effective contribution to the board of an organization.

Click here to register Tuesday, May 7, 2019. 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Click here to register Wednesday, October 16, 2019. 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Board 201 – A complete look at being on a Board of Directors

Whether you are currently on a Board of Directors with a not for profit or charitable organization or you’re seeking a position on a Board, this is the one “must-take workshop” for ensuring effective leadership and accountability. Effective governance is a crucial element of an organization's success. During this full-day workshop, you will learn about governance and board structures, and practical ways to contribute effectively to your board.

Click here to register Saturday, June 22, 2019. 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Click here to register Thursday, November 21, 2019. 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

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Related Blog Posts:

[1] M. Gill, "Governance Do's and Don'ts: Lessons from Case Studies on Twenty Canadian Non-Profits," 23 April 2001. [Online]. Available: http://dev.orgwise.ca/sites/osi.ocasi.org.stage/files/resources/Governance%20DO%27S%20%26%20DON%27TS%2C%20Lessons%20from%20Case%20Studies%20on%20Twenty%20Canadian%20Non-Profits%2C%20Institute%20on%20Governance.pdf. [Accessed 28 February 2019].
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