Opinion

“Plaque and Sack”: The art of getting rid of terrible board members while making them feel appreciated

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone, in honor of Juneteenth, I want funders and donors to remember that only 1.8% of traditional philanthropic dollars go to Black-led orgs. So, if you’ve released or are releasing a statement about Juneteenth, back it up by giving significant money to Black orgs and movements.

In our line of work, there are amazing board members who make our lives easier. They look out for staff; remember their birthdays and send flowers; advocate for equitable policies like paid family leave and sabbaticals; and pick up the tabs at lunch and coffee.

And then there are board members whose unholy presence constantly threatens to open a gate for ancient god Cthulhu to enter this reality and cover the land in a thousand years of agony; who are so irritating and possibly destructive that you imagine a giant squid-faced being ravaging the world and you think “that might not be so bad.”

Many of us have encountered those latter board members. You may be dealing with one or more right now. Ideally, the board chair or ED/CEO having an honest conversation with this board member would resolve the situation. But because of power dynamics, the way that boards are set up, and some board members’ oversized ego, that may not work, and heck, the honesty might backfire on you. So what do you do?

One strategy that some of us have been deploying is to give problematic figures some public recognition, complete with a plaque or trophy of some sort, and this may be enough to get them to leave with minimal blowback and revenge ideations. I call this technique the Plaque and Sack, and it often works because it plays to people’s sense of self-importance. This is not something to use lightly. But here are some tips in case you decide to go that route:

1.Watch out for natural opportunities for plaque and sacking: The end of someone’s term of service; when they express doubts about whether they should stay, in an effort to fish for compliments; a gala coming up. What would be ideal is the trifecta: You have a board member whose term is ending soon, they express doubts about renewing, and you have a large public event coming up. Or, in some circumstances, it’s a weekday, and you can no longer stand this board member’s face.

2.Head off any opportunity for them to renew: Make sure you close any potential doors that could allow them to renew their term or otherwise stay. Say something like, “Jeremy I know your term is coming to an end. We’d like to thank you for your service and send you off with some much deserved public recognition at our gala.” If they say, “well, I was thinking that maybe I can step down after—” cut them off by placing one finger on their lips and saying, “Bup bup bup, no Jeremy, do not ruin this beautiful moment by being humble.”

3.Get an actual plaque of some sort. Not a piece of paper. A real, shiny plaque or trophy they can hold. Something that looks expensive and has their name engraved on it. Depending on the ego of the person, you may need some fancy item made out of glass. Preferably asymmetrical, because that just looks cooler. Ensure it’s not sharp though. You don’t want anything that can be used as a weapon should the plaquee figure out what’s going on.

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Vu Le