Protect Your Nonprofit from 5 Dysfunctions of a Team

By: Boardable CEO Jeb Banner

Nonprofit boards can be described in many ways, but I’ve always found that thinking of a board as a team promotes a sense of closeness and engagement. In my own professional experience, I’ve been fascinated by the way teams work together to achieve goals and reach strategic milestones. One of my favorite books on the subject is Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It strips back the corporate vernacular that is so common in these kinds of books and focuses on the emotional foundation that actually brings teams together.

protect your nonprofit board from 5 team dysfunctions

Looking at nonprofit boards through this lens of team dysfunctions can help nonprofits better understand why some members of a board are disengaged or mentally detached from the team’s initiatives.

Here are the 5 dysfunctions outlined in Lencioni’s book:

1. The absence of trust between team members

2. The fear of conflict and criticism

3. The lack of commitment and buy-in from the group

4. The lack of accountability and responsibility

5. The tendency to put personal success before team success

It’s become clear to me as our modern economy has shifted towards a new digitally-powered age that the above dysfunctions outlined in Lencioni’s book have become even more critical and relevant, especially for nonprofit boards. We’re living in the age of multi-tasking when anything and everything is available to us at the click of a button on our smartphones. This makes connecting with people – and trusting people on an intimate, team level – that much more of a foreign concept. I think that now more than ever it’s important for nonprofits to use this framework as a way to bring board members together to create an engaging, results-oriented conversation.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Relating to Board Members


Trust is the foundation of any relationship, and team members must have a certain level of trust with each other to be able to work towards strategic goals and initiatives. It’s this trust that allows board members to get in constructive debates with each other or hold each other accountable.


Nonprofit boards are in place to help make strategic decisions and support a nonprofit as it grows and succeeds. This means that sometimes hard conversations and decisions must be made. Board members need to feel safe enough that they can engage in occasionally heated communications with their peers, or else they won’t speak up at all. This is a big reason why some board members become disengaged. They simply would rather passively agree than engage in debate.


A lack of commitment to a mission from board members often results from one of two causes. First, it could be that the commitments were not clearly outlined and that board members simply don’t realize what their input should be. On the other hand, the stakes of being on the board just aren’t high enough. If there is no personal “skin in the game,” it can cause board members to become ambivalent and simply not care about the decisions that are being made.


The accountability factor comes down to showing up and taking responsibility for moving a nonprofit forward. Board members should be able to trust each other to get things done, follow up on conversations, and do what they said they would do. This is what turns a nonprofit board into a team: when people hold each other accountable and call it out respectfully if something doesn’t get done.


In my years working with nonprofits, I’ve seen this last dysfunction come up more often than you can imagine. Many times there is a single dominant board member who takes over a conversation and turns what should be a dialogue into more of a dissertation. Board members become more focused on personal success and what their position on a board can do for them professionally than the results and mission of the nonprofit itself.

How to Break Down These Barriers

Whether you’re a nonprofit leader or a current board member, you’re probably wondering how you can break down the above barriers and overcome these dysfunctions in your team. Nonprofit leaders need to be up front and transparent with their boards about expectations and results. Instead of sending 12-20 people into a room with a vague idea of what to discuss, nonprofit moderators can give boards a framework for discussion to help facilitate successful team meetings. Nonprofits should lead their boards down the path to success, instead of hoping they find the path on their own.

On the board member side, it’s about creating an open and safe space for conversation. Nobody should feel scared or uncomfortable speaking up or putting their foot down on a topic. I often find that there is a consensus culture that permeates nonprofit boards where everyone simply agrees because they feel “less than” their peers. People simply assume that someone else is smarter than them, they’re not as prepared as others on the board, or they’re not empowered to make a comment, which causes them to hold back.

Implementing a culture of trust, opening up conversations to welcome conflict, holding members accountable to their commitments, and putting the results of a team above personal success can help break down these dysfunctions and create a welcoming, engaging nonprofit board.

Interested in how to make your board of directors more productive through the effective use of technology? Boardable is a software platform that centralizes all communication between you and your board. Find the best meeting times, securely store all of your documents, archive discussion threads and more—all in one place. Click below to schedule a demo with a member of our Boardable team.

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