How To Make Sure Your Committee Sucks


12 Sure-Fire Ways To Win The Race To The Bottom

If you have been named or elected to a community organization or nonprofit Board, Congratulations! 

As thousands of poorly researched posts on LinkedIn, Medium, and career-advice websites have pointed out, serving on a Board is an excellent way to raise your business profile, gain more clients, and make yourself a more attractive hire by proving that You Care. Probably. Possibly.

Anyway, now that you’re on that Board, making the most of that opportunity requires managing your Board Member responsibilities effectively. By which I mean, of course, appearing to do a great deal of Good while doing as little actual “work” as possible. Here are some tips for making that happen. 

1. Get on the letterhead.

A few organizations throw everybody on the letterhead, which is awesome, except for the poor sap who has to update the letterhead every time someone joins or leaves. But for most organizations, getting on the letterhead means you’re going to have to wrangle a spot on the Executive Board. The official way to get onto an Executive Board is to work hard on a committee, exhibit outstanding leadership skills, and do an amazing job of helping your organization to achieve their mission’s goals.

The unofficial, and vastly easier, way to get elected to an Executive Board is to heap effusive and unrelenting praise on any and all Board members who might vote for you. It also helps to speak at length during Board meetings about the work of committees on which you have done nothing. 

Another excellent tactic is to write emails about projects that you did not conceive, contribute to, or work on, in such a way that people think they were entirely your idea. This sounds like a risky strategy, but these emails are rarely challenged. This is partly because the people who are actually doing all that work are so busy that they won’t notice what you did until it’s too late, and partly because it’s tough to make that case. What are they going to say? “BTW Frank did not contribute that idea, did not spend the 80 hours needed to make it happen, and is not even on our committee” sounds a bit petty.

Finally, in the run-up to the election, be super-helpful to anyone who likes you. Take their calls right away. Run errands. Volunteer for anything that’s not too taxing. Since elections are usually scheduled for lull times in a calendar, between large projects, this is the PERFECT time to be super helpful. Not much effort will be required.

Before you know it, you will be on the letterhead! Now every time someone sends a physical letter on Board letterhead, there you will be. How often does your Board send physical letters on letterhead? Don’t ask uncomfortable questions. It’s getting on the letterhead that counts!

2. Do not read anything. Ever.

Don’t read memos, agendas, or emails—not even emails that answer questions you asked. And those meeting minutes that you’re supposed to review the week before the meeting, and be prepared to discuss? Hah! That’s only important to the loser who has to take careful minutes and write them up. Pro tip: when trying to get on the Executive Board, do not apply to be Secretary.

3. Respond promptly to the materials you do not read, to let the other members of the Board know that you are responsive. Promptly. 

Thank each writer for the information within minutes of receiving it. Rest assured, this acknowledgement does not obligate you to actually read anything. If you’re really bold, your email can even include sentences like, “Thank you for this email. Unfortunately I’m far too busy and important to read it.” These are sentences that someone I served on a Board with would actually write in emails, presumably with a straight face. 

4. Complain loudly that you were not informed of things that were in the material you did not read.

This is both an excuse to do whatever you want, and a reason to let your fellow Board members feel that you have been wronged. Somehow.

Bored sleeping woman not paying attention

5. Insist that meetings be short, and committee reports shorter.  

Try to establish a rule that meetings should consist of a welcome, a quick approval of minutes that only four people have read, committee reports that are the equivalent of single slides, and expansive compliments to one another about what a great job you’re all doing. 

The compliments are very important. Use them effusively every time someone begins to discuss a change, a challenge, a project, or action items.  All of these things require work of some sort. Whether that work is learning something, thinking hard, or committing time, it is bad.  When someone tries to refocus attention on important topics, say, “Let’s not dwell on the negative, Jane. Would anyone in the meeting like to add something positive to the discussion?” This will bring on another round of shallow compliments, again derailing any meaningful discussion. Anyone who wants to discuss serious issues will eventually give up, and you’re off the hook for another month.

Pro tip: If compliments don’t work to derail substantive discussion, start an argument about the By-Laws.

6. In meetings, tell people that you have brilliant ideas for solving big challenges, and that you will share them privately another day. Then never follow up. 

Despite your best efforts, it may happen that sometimes meetings include substantive discussions of important challenges. You do not want to participate in these, because that requires thinking, and thinking is very tiring. So use the “I have the perfect solution. I’ll call you tomorrow” ploy. It lifts yourself out of the discussion the way that Neo elevated out of the fight with the Agent Smith clones in The Matrix Reloaded. 

About the follow-up: don’t worry that someone will expect you to call them the next day with actual brilliant ideas. They won’t. In fact, they are likely to be extremely relieved that you don’t call them for any reason at all. For example, let’s say that your name is Abigail and you are on a nonprofit Board with Ted. You drive by Ted’s house while he is at work. You see that his house is on fire, but you don’t call him. You don’t even dial 911. Later, Ted will say, “Yes, it’s tragic that my house burned down, but the silver lining is that I did not have to talk to Abigail.”

7. Promote your friends, clients, and business associates at every opportunity — but always make it seem like you’re doing the Board a favor.  

Mastering this skill is key, because promoting your business is the whole reason you joined the Board in the first place. But since, in pretty short order, everyone else figures out that’s why you joined the Board, it’s wise to have defenses at the ready when challenged.

For example, when other members of the Board remind you that you are violating the rules and playing favorites by handing out no-bid contracts, or by giving promotional or sponsorship spots to clients who have contributed no money to the organization, do not back down. Instead, do one or more of the following:

  • Say “But I already promised!  Please don’t embarrass me.”
  • Insist that the business associate deserves to be rewarded because of their generous support in the past. Assert that this is true even when your treasurer looks at the data and tells you that their past “support” consisted almost entirely of getting freebies like this one.
  • Tell the Board that these particular business associates are this close to giving a huge donation to the organization, and that this favor you’re doing for them will seal the deal. This part is fun, because you can make up an enormous donation. It’s never going to happen, so there’s no harm in making your imaginary number really exciting.
  • Pro tip: if everyone knows that your skinflint associates will never donate anything more valuable than the 2,000 promotional pens left over from their last convention, pretend that the associates have a very rich friend they will convince to donate big bucks. If you are pressed to name the potential philanthropist, choose someone plausibly successful but obscure enough not to be contacted. Unlike the “imaginary number” tip, resist the temptation to go too big here. Everyone in your organization knows that you do not know Warren Buffet.
  • Cry. As you’ll see below, crying is a multi-use tool. 

8. When you see someone else being effective, disrupt their work as much as humanly possible. 

Ask a lot of pointless questions, show up at meetings and try to change plans, spend the entire event budget on a single irrelevant item, like elaborate centerpieces or a celebrity MC — anything so that they can’t continue to be effective. People who are effective make people like you look bad. They set expectations that members of boards should work hard, and you do not want that. 

9. Say, “that’s the way we’ve always done it” and pray that there is no D.L.

D.L.—not her real initials—is someone with whom I served on a Board. When someone uses the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” rationale for anything, she always asks “Why?” and listens attentively and carefully to the answer. She then says, calmly and slowly, “That’s asinine.” I love D.L. . 

10. If you upset someone, immediately call everyone else on the Board and tell them that that person hurt your feelings by responding negatively when you upset them.

Example: “All I said was that her ideas are stupid and that no one likes working with her. She got very offended, even though I clearly meant it all in only the nicest and most constructive way.” Crying helps. Later, apologize for being so upset (sympathy times two!), to everyone except the person you actually wronged. 

Master the art of avoiding effort when it matters most.

Eventually, no matter how well you master the above techniques, there will come a time when you will be expected to “do something” that involves several hours of “work”.  It might be codified in the By-Laws, for example, that everyone has to donate a certain number of hours to the organization’s annual projects, whether that’s digging a community garden or setting up before and cleaning up after a fundraiser. 

Since participation is required, you might think that there’s no getting out of this one. But happily, you would be wrong!  Our two final tips are exceptional ways to make sure that you do not even have to make this minimal effort.

Shocked woman reacting to offensive remark.

11. Aversion therapy. 

Make people on the Board desperate to not work with you. If you have not already accomplished this by following any of the excellent advice above, there’s one more very good technique to employ: use stereotypes and trigger words to remind “others” that you are better than they are.  If you do this well, you will be deeply offensive in ways that are both difficult for the target to articulate, and easy for well-meaning people to dismiss. 

Although the examples I’m about to give sound outlandish — surely, you might be thinking, these can’t actually work — I can assure you that they do work because I have witnessed every single one of them. 

  • Asian person on your Board? Tell them you’re glad to have them around in case you need “tech support.” Doesn’t matter if they’re a professor of medieval literature.
  • LGBTQ? Ask all the gay men to serve on the decorating committee, all the gay women to build things, and for everyone else, make a big deal of using the wrong pronouns every damn time, “because it’s so confusing; I just don’t know what you are now.”
  • People of color? Assume that they grew up in slums, and also that they know every other person of color in the world and can speak for them.  Ask them if they’ve ever stolen a car or been in a gang.  (Remember: I’m only sharing stuff that has actually been said. Out loud. To other human beings with ears.) Co-opt their ideas and projects whenever you think you can get away with it. When they push back, or push for more diversity on your Board or in your programs, remind them that you are already extending the courtesy of “allowing” them to be in your group. 
  • People you consider “ethnic”? Complain that their name is too hard to pronounce correctly, and make sure to pronounce it incorrectly most of the time. Bonus points for telling a native-born or decades-long English-speaker that you “don’t understand their accent”. 
  • Anyone smarter than you, especially, but not exclusively, if they are women: dismiss their volunteer efforts with the phrase, “You know what would be a good fit for you?” followed by the smallest and least important task on your committee, like passing out snacks. If a woman is an expert in something you think is a “masculine” endeavor, like strategy or web development, ask any man on the Board for a second opinion. Remarkably, about 50% of the time the man will provide one, even if he knows nothing about the topic.
  • Only works if you are a man: When a woman shares an idea at a meeting, respond with silence. If everyone else does the same, repeat the idea five minutes later. Everyone will get excited about it and proclaim you a genius. Most of the women at the meeting will be aware of what you did, but still say nothing (this is why the woman herself will not call you on it). Most of the men will have no idea it just happened right in front of them.
  • Interestingly, people think that this tip only works if you use different words to express the woman’s idea. Nope! You don’t have to make even that small effort! It works just as well when you restate the idea in exactly the same words as the woman!  It’s like she never said anything at all, just came up with the idea and handed it off to you through direct transmission into your head.  Her idea is a gift! Take it!

Important: do not use Aversion Therapy on anyone who can get you elected to the Executive Board or who otherwise can further your business or career goals.  Or at least save it for after you’ve gotten on that all-important letterhead. 

12. “My foot hurts.”

I named this tip after the character Elton from the movie Clueless, which is not entirely fair, because for Elton, it was kind of a one-off, and it’s not clear he was trying to get out of doing work. But it’s more interesting than “Doctor’s note”, so I’m sticking with it. 

This one doesn’t really need much explaining. If you’re reading this, you probably came to the Board already an expert, honed from a lifetime of evading family chores, sticking your classmates with all the work on group projects, and, and when you’re at work, leaving any tedious tasks to others. But like all the other tips on this list, it’s extremely effective. If you have followed my advice precisely, you will achieve your goal of serving on a Board without serving anyone at all, especially your fellow Board members. And yet, you can boast about it on LinkedIn until you’re dead. 

I’m sure there are many more ways to make the board or committee experience miserable for everyone. If you have any more to add from your own experience, I’d love to read them in the comments below.


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