Whenever a non-profit colleague leaves a job, or is dismissed, and reaches out to me, the first thing I say is, “Well, at least you don’t have to go to the next Board Meeting” and that person’s spirits are immediately cheered. Is there anyone out there who truly loves the traditional, stuffy, overstuffed and dry board meeting? I haven’t met you. Why is it this way?
Some Observations about Your Board Meetings:
- Quarterly Might be Just Fine. If there are high functioning committees (executive, development, programmatic, but not marketing, hopefully) accomplishing the work of your organization, and if there is consistent conversation between staff and board members on an ongoing basis, a monthly meeting is likely a waste of time and resources. Why? One of the great secrets of non-profit management is that board meetings require an enormous amount of staff time to produce. No one wants to admit this. Assembling reports and summaries, preparing the meeting itself, organizing each committee member’s report, and so on requires hours of staff time that could be better spent doing literally anything else. Monthly board meetings mean lots of your staff are spending a DAY or TWO a MONTH prepping. Is this wasteful? Yes.
- The Chair must Chair. Good meetings need effective conveners. This means moving purposefully through the agenda, knowing when to let a valuable, but off topic, discussion continue, and when to wrap it up. It means encouraging participation from the introverts. Meetings should start on time, and end when they must. And, for all the hassle, I don’t believe it is worthwhile to dial members in by phone. It is almost universally disruptive for everyone actually attending the meeting, the dieal in participant rarely feels truly engaged as an active participant, and speaker phone technology has not advanced meaningfully since the 1990s. Until we have hologram communications, let those who cannot attend simply not participate.
- Staff should be Seen and (rarely) Heard. Or, even better, Back at the Office, Working. Having four or five (often even more) staff members in attendance at your board meeting is an expensive waste of time and resource. Board members should be giving reports whenever possible, with staffers there to answer follow up questions and share Mission Moments (see below). Or staff should stay, mercifully, back at the office. If you are an Executive Director who feels that the whole staff team needs to attend each and every board meeting, let’s sit and talk about your priorities.
- Consent Agendas are Your Friend. 40 page all-but-the-kitchen-sink printed board packets are not your Friend, however. The consent agenda is a wonderful development in non-profit work as it eliminates simple information sharing at meetings. Use it. But don’t print out a 40 page board packet of consent agenda filler and hand all that crap out in a three ring binder every month. Forests are literally disappearing. Send a pdf of the full report by email if you must. Do not PRINT ALL THIS DEBRIS.
- The Development Report Cannot Wait. When your Development Report is the 9th item on the agenda, no one is going to pay attention. Your Board is an active leadership group for your fundraising program. Prioritize this on your agenda. Prep the Development Committee chair to present a concise report outlining recent successes, progress to date, and areas of focus in the coming 60 days.
- Create a Mission Moment, for the love of all that is Decent. The average Board Meeting I attend has no magic, nothing specific to connect the necessary (but boring) business of governance with the mission and life of the organization. This is such an easy fix. Devote five minutes near the start of each board meeting to your Mission. Five Minutes! What to do? Introduce a new staff member from the program side, who briefly outlines their work. Sing a song. Share a impact story from a program recipient. Play the new marketing video. One of the best Mission Moments I’ve witnessed was showing off a new light board in a theatre. Are light boards interesting? You bet.
- Avoid Open Ended General Discussions. The worst board meeting is one that goes on indefinitely, based on squishy questions with no real strategic direction. “How can we better market to millennials?” “Which corporate contacts can each of us provide to fundraising today for immediate solicitation?” “What is our executive transition plan?” “How can we recruit a more diverse Board?” are all interesting questions but have no place for a typical board meeting agenda. There is a time and place for strategic discussions. Save the, for the annual retreat.
Board Meetings can be drag, but think about the opportunity they represent: a group of committed volunteers focused on your non-profit, bringing diverse skill sets and backgrounds to your vital work. Start with this list for improving yours!