Should You Have Agendas for Board Meetings?

In this post, I share how a diverse board handles some different cultural norms around agendas and meetings. It’s a good lesson about being transparent and inclusive.

How One Board Changed the Way Agendas Were Developed and Meetings Were Run

Told by a Board Chair somewhere in the US

Many years ago, I was board chair of a small nonprofit that had a very diverse board. At one meeting, a board member suggested that we not use agendas. He said that there were cultures where following a strict agenda was uncomfortable and — to respect those individuals — we should not have an agenda.

I thanked the board member and said I would consider his suggestion. Which I did. He was right. There were several board members who came from cultures where being precisely on time and getting immediately to work was not the way things were done. I was wondering how to approach the situation when another board member called me. He was very upset about the suggestion that we give up agendas because he was from a culture where punctuality and formality were highly valued.

I was caught between competing norms. That can happen a lot in this country where we have people from very different cultures.

Agendas Are Respectful but Can Be Done Better

I reached out to the original board member who had proposed eliminating agendas as well as several other board members to see how they felt. Then, after some thought and several conversations with the ED, we decided that having an agenda was respectful. It gave people notice about what topics were to be discussed so they could prepare. It helped the ED and the Board Chair keep the meeting to the agreed upon amount of time. We know that board members are volunteers, and they have other obligations. Some people have to get back to work. I know one woman had children who were with a babysitter, so she had to get home soon after the meeting.

But after talking to board members, the ED and I realized that there were more things at play than just agendas. One was who got to set the agenda. Most of the board members did not know who decided what we were going to talk about at each meeting. Another issue was providing time to connect before diving into business. And finally, people wanted space for unstructured conversation. They felt like the agendas were too tight and we were always hurrying or cutting people off in order to finish on time.  

Be Inclusive When Developing the Agenda

The first area was pretty easy to address. Previously the ED and I had just developed the agenda on our own. That was clearly not transparent or inclusive. We were a small organization, so we did not have an executive committee. We decided to send out an email each month to the full board asking if they had anything they wanted to include on an upcoming agenda.  We did not promise it would be the next board meeting because sometimes we had important topics that filled an agenda, like approving the yearly budget. In addition, at the end of every meeting, I noted any items that would appear on the next agenda because they required more discussion and I asked again for ideas for future agendas. Once I proved that I sincere, board members made suggestions more frequently.

In addition, the ED and I developed a board calendar. Every board has a rhythm of business that needs to be done over the year and we wrote it down so board members would know what was coming up. What do we need to do in January? In February? etc.

Decide Meeting Norms as a Group

The other areas were more complicated. We had people from different cultures with different ways of interacting. What made one person comfortable frustrated another. The ED and I thought the best way to address this was to decide as a group how our meetings should be run. So we held a board meeting where we had this discussion. We agreed to have check-ins or ice breakers at the beginning of each board meeting rather than just jump into business. This was very important to some people and others said they were fine with it. We also agreed that we had to keep the meetings to a set length as people had other obligations. That meant we had to cover fewer items at each meeting so there was more time for open discussion, and we did not have to rush.

Board Members Must Come Prepared

In order to cover fewer topics, we insisted that everyone come to the meetings prepared, having read materials ahead of time. That way we could save time by not repeating what was sent out ahead and just go to discussion as a board. We decided that we did not need every committee to give an oral report at every meeting, committee reports would be sent out ahead of time. We would only have a report out if the committee chair needed the full board to be aware of something important or wanted to discuss a topic with a broader group.  

Be Willing to Adjust

Over a few meetings, we had to adjust what we were doing. We made the meetings 15 minutes longer, so we had time for check ins. We got the meeting materials out more than a week before, so board members had ample time to read them. We also started sending out key questions as prompts for the discussion to allow board members to think about their responses. Finally, since we had new board members coming on every year, we decided to discuss meeting norms every year to see if any adjustments needed to be made. We added this to our board calendar.

I think we struck a good balance, and our meetings became a trusted space where people could get into deeper discussion.

Lessons Learned

The biggest lessons learned were to be transparent about how the meeting agendas are set and to reach out to all board members for input. The second lesson was to decide as a group about meeting norms – and to update and review them as needed.

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