Opinion: “Toxic Environment” In VT Nonprofit Boards Discourages Involvement

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November 19, 2014; VTDigger


In an opinion piece from the Bennington Banner, Don Keelan, a certified public accountant, says that recent failures of boards of trustees in some Vermont nonprofit institutions and public bodies are not exactly welcoming of new board candidates. He cites some of the recent headlines in various Vermont media outlets, “Under Plunkett’s Tenure, Burlington College Falters,” “Vermont AG Sorrell Sues Emerge Family Advocates Inc.,” “Trustees Face Meeting Law Violation” and “Burlington School Receive Resignations from Three Top Administrators.” He says that the stories all have one commonality, which is a toxic environment that shuts out good governance.

The toxic dynamics he cites that have gotten out of control are not exactly new, including:

  • Antagonism and lack of respect between staff and board members;
  • Nonattendance and failure to prepare;
  • Taking up issues outside of the boardroom in a way that breaks trust and creates factions;
  • Stonewalling members who ask legitimate, albeit uncomfortable, questions; and
  • Unrestrained clashes of individual agendas to the point that board members sue other board members, as NPQ recently reported occurred in the Emerge case.

Writes Keelan, “It is not uncommon for board members of a nonprofit to bring litigation against fellow board members. Susan Smallheer, writing in the October 30, 2014, Rutland Herald, characterized the lawsuit brought by trustees of the Rockingham Free Public Library: ‘After six months of relative peace and tranquility, some of the current and former trustees of the Rockingham Free Public Library are back to their formerly contentious ways.’”

The term “toxic environment” has been used to describe so many boardrooms in Vermont, Keelan says, “It is no wonder so many capable Vermonters are just saying no thanks when asked to serve on local nonprofit boards.”

Please add to Keelan’s list of behaviors every board should avoid.—Ruth McCambridge


  • Terry Fernsler

    Some years ago, in a rural area I served, boards would rotate organizations–and dysfunctions. One or a few members would invite their friends onto the board of whatever organization they were sitting on at the time, then as term limits required veteran board members to move off, they would become attached to new organizations and invite their friends (from the old board) to join them. You could follow their trail of troubled (and sometimes dissolved) organization to organization. This group would never learn new ways of governing, and their wake was devastating to constituents.