Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Crazy Uncle Syndrome – How to Confront Wacko Board Member Moments

“O.K., everyone I would like to start by holding hands and saying a prayer,” stated my board chair as we started the most important meeting of the year. We were meeting with the Senior Vice President overseeing Corporate Philanthropy at one of the largest corporations in the United States. Everyone was looking forward to it. The day before, my board chair emphatically stated, “I will meet you in front and we will walk in together.” My stomach sunk and I thought, “Crap!”

Crazy Uncle board member situations happen more regularly than you think. The term “Crazy Uncle” came from one of my clients who has had a board member act like Kanye West at an award-show on several occasions. Another client had a corporate-titan type who believed that working with philanthropy was the cross between verbal arm wrestling and Let’s Make A Deal; a funder literally ran a sprint out of the room for fear of her life. So, how we tame the Crazy Uncle board member? Especially since we may feel like he holds the Executive Director’s job in his hands. Here are some ways to work through this challenge:

  • Discuss Talking Points Ahead of Time, Give Crazy Uncle a Specific Role – While this seems like a given, I am always amazed how this step is missed. Often schedules become too busy or simply you trust all of those invited to represent the organization well. This will not happen unless you go over the script the beforehand.
  • Give Crazy Uncle Another Venue – Sometimes individuals think they are skilled in areas that they clearly are not. I used to think I was a great orator, like MLK-esque, until I saw a video and realized I was far from it. While I have moved onto other dreams, sometimes using the board members perceived asset could be done in another vein. Try having them speak in less pivotal situations: addressing staff at the annual meeting or speaking to clients on his passion for service.
  • Talk To Another Board Member – I am sure that you have noticed the rubbing of the eyes and looking at the shoes of other board members when Crazy Uncle speaks. Have a board peer approach C.U. This can be a difficult conversation for them to have, but if other board members can muster up some strength, they should do it.
  • Forewarn the House Guests – I think most VIPs know that board members are volunteers. A call to the VIP ahead of time to signal that Crazy Uncle is a very dedicated volunteer and is passionate about the work, but because of his military training he might just ask everyone to do 20 push ups. Ask the VIP not to hold this against C.U. (and she can ask for a rain check on the push ups); this should not diminish the important work your organization is doing.
  • VIP is Sacrificial Lamb – Sometimes the Crazy Uncle has been mumbling “Oh Suzanna” at the end of the table for many years and you have just dealt with it by talking louder. Well, this is probably one of the reasons you have not been able to move forward and letting this situation become exposed can help address the issue. This may seem extreme but I have seen it work. Of course, choosing a smaller VIP to sacrifice might be preferable.

All the recommendations have one common thread and that is to plan out a response. As these situations can be embarrassing, responding in anger will only exacerbate the situation.

In the situation with my overly religious board chair, I actually re-focused the situation by stating that part of the custom of the organization was to give thanks for bringing everyone around our mission and that we were especially thankful to the funders for hosting us. I stated we looked forward to them joining us in a site visit and seeing our work. The board chair sat quietly during the meeting, and while embarrassed, she also stated that she was out of line.