I have served on a lot of boards which means I go to a lot of board meetings. Honestly, lots of board meetings are – well, I have to say it – boring. You sit and listen to presentations and committee reports, take an occasional vote, and do little else.
Let’s start with the assumption that the reason to get together in one room or on one call is so people can talk to each other. To carry out fiduciary responsibility, board members need to be able to ask about finances, risks, and progress toward goals. To be thought partners, board members need to be able to share ideas, explore alternatives, and understand challenges and opportunities. To be effective – and engaging – board meetings need lots of time for dialog.
No one person or group is to blame – we all share responsibility. So, let’s all make some new year’s resolutions to solve this problem.
Board Members: Be on Time and Prepared
Could you resolve to come to all board meetings on time and prepared?
I know everyone is late occasionally, but some board members are late to every single meeting. Everyone else has to wait on you. We get behind on the schedule. Discussions are cut short.
Could you also read the materials sent out ahead of time? Your lack of preparation is disrespectful to everyone. The staff spends a lot of time getting the materials out. The information is necessary for us to provide informed oversight and thoughtful input. More importantly, valuable meeting time is used for review, reducing time for discussion and subjecting those of us who do prepare to tedious recitations of the information we have already read.
I don’t know why so many board members disregard the pre-read. Coming to meetings prepared should be a basic expectation. How hard can it be to put an hour on your calendar before the board meeting to read the materials?
Board Chairs: Run Tight Meetings
Could you resolve to run meetings on time?
When the meetings start late and presentations run long, we don’t get to the discussions or to all of the topics we need to address. Most likely you have to transform the culture of your board to make this happen. Because it’s not all your fault. My recommendations:
- Even though people arrive late (see above), start on time. After a while, chronic latecomers will get the idea. They might even feel embarrassed about showing up late and interrupting the meeting.
- When people arrive unprepared (see above), don’t waste everyone else’s time catching them up. If someone asks for information that was in the board pre-read, see if others need clarification (it could be that the materials were not clear). If not, remind the board member that this information was sent out ahead of time.
- Be firm with people who run on and on and on and on. It is hard to cut someone off, but sometimes you have to do it. Be prepared with good ways to interrupt: “John, I appreciate your comments, but others are waiting to participate as well.” “We will take one more question or comment, but then we have to move on. We have lots of material to cover.” “This is a good discussion, let’s see if the staff need any more input from us.” “I can see that we have not resolved this, let’s add to the agenda for the next meeting.”
Agenda Creators: Focus on Engaging Material and Generative Topics
Resolve to have meetings that are engaging, focus on strategic topics, and allow for generative discussion.
I know that planning a board meeting is hard. There’s always a lot to cover. So, be deliberate about what you put on the agenda. Structure your board meeting so that most of the time is spent on strategic and generative topics. If you only have presentations (boring), then you might just as well send the information out via email and skip the meeting.
Agendas are usually created by the board chair with the ED or by the Executive Committee with the ED, depending on the size of the organization. The ED should not have sole control over the agenda. Since control of the agenda is an important aspect of equity, I like to reach out to all board members to see if they have a topic they would like to include at a future meeting.
My next post will address my ideas for a great agenda. But quickly:
- A mission moment (make sure it’s not a mission half hour) to connect to why we are here and the good work we do.
- Consent agenda to vote on minutes and committee reports.
- Fiduciary time – cover topics that board members need to approve such as budgets and policies. Present at a high level so you get high-level input. Leave plenty of time for – and encourage – questions and feedback. When appropriate, come to the board with alternatives and ask for discussion.
- Generative conversation – this is the real meat of the meeting. It could include training, strategic planning or follow up, or discussion of important programmatic changes.
CEO: Transform Your Vision of Your Board
Can you resolve to see your board differently?
I know of a few CEOs who see their boards as a necessary nuisance. They get through board meetings with lots of report outs and mostly forget about the board until the next meeting. On the other hand, there are CEOs who understand that their boards can be a huge asset. They see their board members as thought partners. They come to the board and say “Here’s something I have been thinking about. You all are great minds. What am I missing? What makes sense? Where do I need more information?” After all, nonprofits go through the process of getting people with lots of different skills, experience, and connections on their boards – remember that matrix? You should use those skills! Board members want to help!
I can recall several experiences where EDs have done this well. In one, the ED noted that there was an entire population that the organization was not serving – mostly because there was not a good funding source for this population. The ED proposed that the organization use unrestricted funding raised at the most recent annual event to run a pilot project. The ED had several proposals for how this would work, how it would be evaluated, what it would cost, and then asked the board to discuss it. We asked hard questions about risk, mission creep, and staffing. After a great conversation, we voted to go ahead. Notably, more than a dozen years later, this pilot program is key to the organization’s impact. The program has attracted many funders and nationwide attention.
In another situation, the ED had some organizational and staffing issues. She came to the board – in executive session – and said “You all have great management and leadership experience. Here is what I have been thinking and the pros and cons as I see them. I know it’s my decision. But help me make my plan better.” We asked a lot of questions and gave lots of input. She came back at the next meeting with a revised plan which was implemented over the next six months. The result was that the organization was better poised to grow and have increased impact.
New Year’s Resolutions
Board Members: Come on time and prepared
Agenda Creators: Focus on engaging topics and generative discussion
Executive Directors: See board members as thought partners