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The Empty Chair: A Message to Board Members

It’s not enough for a board member to just love the health care organization’s mission. It’s not enough for a board leader to simply believe in the value of the work. As a board member and mission leader, one simply must make a commitment not only to care about but also to meaningfully support the mission.

Board members, is it time for some personal soul searching and reassessment of your gifts of time and talent? As members, some of you have likely ploughed through the board member manual and sat through orientation. You may have even participated in your share of meetings. But regardless of the point in your board member journey, you may have come to the personal realization that what is entailed in “stepping up” is simply not for you. So, consider another gift: the gift of an empty chair.

Ponder this. It is always a disappointment to have someone on the board of directors who doesn’t come to meetings, who isn’t willing to set an example by making a personal financial gift or who doesn’t have the time or inclination to get actively involved. However, most nonprofit organizations let this situation languish because it is too hurtful or embarrassing to confront those members about the inattention to their roles. Seemingly few board members take the subtle clue that “this applies to you” when boardroom conversations arise about them feel singled out. It is as simple as distributing an annual “willingness to serve” form that reiterates all of the expectations of board membership, possibly including a checklist of each responsibility, and shares a message that goes something like this:

“We understand that life changes and the good intentions you brought to this role may now be overshadowed by pressing personal, professional or other demands that now make it impossible for you to participate in the work of the organization at the level you desire. If you are no longer able to serve in this board capacity, the board will release you from your current term commitment and would then be delighted to consider you for future board membership if your availability changes.”

Don’t put this off any longer. Now is a great time to reevaluate board participation. The gift of an empty chair provides the opportunity to engage someone else who has both the willingness and ability to elevate the mission and work of the organization. That’s a win for the organization. It’s also a win for board members in relieving the stress of continued excuses or the guilt ofnot fulfilling responsibilities at the level everyone desires. Sometimes, the greatest gift a board member can give is the gift of the empty chair.


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The Accordant Team has published a number of books to advance the efforts of health care philanthropy and help development leaders everywhere. 

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Accordant is honored to collaborate with American Hospital Association Trustee Services to provide issue papers, templates and webinars to support the involvement of healthcare trustees and foundation board members in advancing philanthropy. These resources can also be found on the AHA Trustee website.

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