I have a couple complaints about board meetings. One is that they can be incredibly boring and unproductive. I wrote about this in my last post and will address the issue in this post with ideas on how to create and structure an effective board meeting agenda.
I start with the assumption that the reason to get everyone in the room (or online) at the same time is to interact. If you spend your entire meeting on committee reports, you could just send them by email. I can read them at home or the office and use the time to go shopping or read a book or go to a movie.
I also assume that you went to the effort of finding great board members with varied skills and expertise because you would like them to use their knowhow to make your organization more impactful. You want them to show up and engage at your board meetings. Therefore, you have to structure your meetings to include real discussions.
Board Meetings Are NOT About the Board
My other complaint is when boards start making the meetings about the board itself. I have been on boards where we spent a huge amount of time connecting with other board members, providing training for board members, making sure board members are feeling good about being board members….
Don’t get me wrong, it is very important for board members to connect. We need to know and trust each other. We need a safe environment where we can speak freely. We need to be able to make difficult decisions together. I also totally believe that volunteer board service should be joyful and fun. If it is not, then you should look for another organization or another way to spend your time. In addition, I believe it is fine to serve on a board in order to increase your own skills and knowledge and connect with others, but those goals should be secondary. Your primary obligation is to further the mission of the organization. And, most of a board meeting should focus on oversight and insight.
Get Board Materials Out Ahead
If you want to have engaging discussions, everyone needs to be prepared. Staff should get board materials out a week – or at least a full weekend – ahead. Don’t send too much information. It won’t get read. Or highlight what’s really important. If possible, include the strategic questions you are going to discuss at the board meeting. This gives board members time to think ahead.
And board members — be respectful. Read the materials ahead. Come prepared.
Consider Who Creates the Agenda
Before moving into content, I want to briefly talk about who decides what content is included.
Sometimes the board chair creates the agenda with the ED, sometimes the entire executive committee plans the agenda with the ED. I have heard of but not been on boards where the governance committee creates the agenda with the ED.
The ED should not create the agenda alone. If your ED is creating the agenda, you are abdicating your oversight role. I shared a story about the impact of a controlling CEO and another story where board members did not pay attention to what was going on – with bad results.
Who controls the agenda is also an equity issue. I strongly recommend having ways for all board members to propose topics. For example, at the beginning of the year, when board members sign a commitment form, ask them for topics they would like cover. You can also send out an email before each board meeting asking if anyone has something to discuss. Or have a question in the meeting review (see below).
Don’t make promises you cannot keep: If you don’t have time on the next agenda, let the board member know that you will put the topic on a subsequent agenda. If the topic is not appropriate, reach out to that board member to explain why and to hear their concerns so you can direct them appropriately.
Create a Yearly Board Calendar
Create a yearly board calendar that specifies when routine but important items are discussed. The calendar can also include topics for committees. For example: When does the finance committee start creating the budget? When is it sent to the board for approval?
Other topics you might include are:
- ED performance review and compensation
- Fundraising plan
- Recruitment, approval of, and on-boarding of new board members
- Selection of officers
- Board retreat
- Review of committee charters
- Board conflict of interest and self-evaluation
Framework for a Board Meeting
Here is my high-level framework for a board meeting. I will discuss each item more below. I gave sample times for a two-hour meeting. Of course, these will vary based on how long you meet, how often you meet, and time of year.
The agenda should be intentionally structured so most of the time is spent on strategic, generative topics. This means you need to present routine items in a concise way.
- Welcome and introduce any guests or speakers (5 minutes)
- Connection with mission (15 minutes)
- Consent agenda (5 minutes)
- Business Oversight/Fiduciary responsibility (25 minutes)
- Learning/Generative Discussion (50 minutes)
- Executive Session (15 minutes)
- Meeting Review/Assessment (5 minutes)
With the mission: I recommend starting each meeting with something about the organization’s mission. Board members are ambassadors – they need to know what’s going on. Focus on impact. And keep the presentation short. I have seen the “mission minute” become the “mission half hour.”
With each other: As I noted above, it is really important that board members get to know each other. If you can do this outside of the official board meeting, that is great. I was on one board where lunch was served 30 minutes before the board meeting started. Members were not required to come early but most did and that gave us time to catch up. Other boards have a dinner the night before the board meeting. This works especially well if people travel for the meeting. Most boards also spend some time at their yearly retreat to build rapport. Ice breakers and similar introductions are good when new members join the board. But they can take too long for every meeting.
Depending on the size of your board, you can help board members connect with each other by breaking into small groups when having discussions. Assign the groups so members interact with different people each time.
A consent agenda allows you to approve routine items such as minutes and committee reports quickly with one vote. If a board member has a question or concern about an item, it can be removed from the consent agenda and discussed separately.
Business Oversight/Fiduciary Responsibility
The board needs to oversee financials and fundraising, review programmatic progress and impact, and monitor risks to the organization.
Many organizations agree on key metrics to track and create a dashboard that is presented at each board meeting. Keep the information on the dashboard at a strategic level. And prioritize. If you provide too much operational detail, your discussion will be operational, not strategic. The dashboard should show actual progress versus plan and provide good narrative about any variances. The dashboard can also identify risks, challenges, and opportunities.
Most of your board meeting should focus on generative discussions and important topics. During this time, be forward thinking, connect to your strategic plan, present new data and information, or discuss operational challenges and opportunities. This is also a good time to provide training – around fundraising, advocacy, or a new programmatic area. The goal is to have board members act as thought partners for staff, sharing their varied experiences and providing wide-ranging perspectives. This part of the board meeting should spark conversation as I discussed in a previous post.
Prioritize your questions in case you don’t get through all of them. And stay at the strategic level!
Here are some ideas:
- When reviewing the strategic plan: What is our desired future? Do our programs lead to that future? If not, what should be changed? Do we have the right staffing and leadership (including board leadership) to achieve this future?
- After a fundraising event with analysis on costs and net profit: What worked and what did not? What might we do differently in the future? What did you hear from the people you invited to the event?
- About a new potential program: Do you think this is mission creep or strategic evolution? Are we the best organization to take this on? What are the risks? What are the opportunities? How can we better include community in our decision making? Who else should we be talking to?
- When approving the budget: What are the assumptions behind this budget? Does our budget reflect our mission and values?
- We received an unexpected, unrestricted grant, how should we use it? Or should we save it?
I previously wrote a post about the need to have executive sessions at every board meeting. This provides the opportunity for board members to share thoughts without staff present. Sometimes you won’t have anything to discuss. Sometimes you will have lots to discuss. But it is best practice to provide that opportunity at every meeting.
Many organizations do a written meeting review at the end of every meeting. Develop a list of three or four simple questions that board members can answer (anonymously, if they like). For example, did you leave the meeting feeling positive about the organization’s performance? Did you feel the meeting was productive? Did you feel you had opportunity to provide input? Are there topics you would like to discuss at future meetings?