I used to say that a bad nonprofit board meeting was like root canal surgery, but I don’t say that any more. Why? Because last year, for the first time, I underwent a root canal procedure, and it really wasn’t so bad.
The surgeon played great music and told funny jokes, and the anesthesia was, well, kind of pleasant. And it was all over in an hour. In terms of interest, entertainment, and, shall we say, mood enhancers, root canal surgery is actually better than a bad nonprofit board meeting. (At the very least, it’s shorter.)
That said, it really is possible to have great board meetings – and, for organizations to be successful, it’s critical. So how do you make good board meetings happen?
First, let’s describe a bad board meeting. It’s not about yelling and screaming: that kind of behavior almost never happens. No: board meetings are bad because they’re boring and irrelevant.
Most bad board meetings are dominated by the presentation of committee reports, which require no discussion or action or active engagement. There’s the report from the Development Committee. The report from the Nominating Committee. The report from the Golf Tournament Committee. Then there’s the report of the Finance Committee, wherein the Treasurer distributes the latest financial reports and literally reads through each line item.
This gets us 90 minutes into the meeting. (The meeting is scheduled for two hours, but bad board meetings routinely run long. And there are no refreshments. Bad board meetings promote a culture of starvation, caffeine deprivation, and disregard for people’s time.) Next up is the Executive Director’s report, with seventeen bullet points, only two of which have any real importance to the board. But the Executive Director “touches briefly” on all seventeen points – which takes us to the two-hour-and-fifteen-minute mark.
At this point, we get to the first subject of the day that actually requires board engagement, input, and decision-making. Let’s imagine that the topic is how to respond to a million-dollar bequest, by far the largest gift in the organization’s history. That would seem like good news, and not much to discuss. The problem is that the bequest came with provisions that may be difficult or expensive to fulfill. The organization needs to decide whether to adjust its mission and hire new staff to carry out the provisions of the bequest, or to turn it down, or to request that the probate judge consider amending the terms of the gift. The executor of the estate and the judge are waiting to hear what the board decides – but we’ve now run out of time to discuss the issue. The board members, hungry and tired, either deal with the bequest issue quickly and with insufficient discussion, or they roll the topic onto the agenda for the next meeting, or they delegate the response to the Executive Committee. All these choices are sub-optimal.
This is no way to run an organization. But it’s precisely the way many nonprofit organizations are run. That’s not because people are willfully trying to sabotage the meetings, or because board leaders are unintelligent or inattentive to their responsibilities. It’s because they don’t know any better. They run board meetings the way the first board meetings they attended were run. That’s the template, and they stick to it.
So what does a good board meeting look like?
- The meeting starts and ends on time. And there’s plenty of refreshment, appropriate to the time of day.
- The board chair starts with a 90-second summary of some important highlights and successes of the organization. The chair sets a positive tone, saying, essentially, “I’m excited to be devoting my time to an organization that’s accomplishing so much!”
- The next five or ten minutes are devoted to a “mission moment,” where a staff or board member reads a thank-you note, or describes an interaction with a client or the public that speaks to how the organization is meeting its mission. This interlude, in conjunction with the board chair’s introductory comments, sets a positive tone for the meeting — and reminds board members why they are there.
- All reports have been mailed to the board a week in advance. The committee reports that do not require discussion on the part of the board are included in a “consent agenda,” along with the minutes of the last meeting. These items are approved in a single vote – zip! whip! – at the start of the meeting, though any board member has the right to pull out items for further discussion. The consent agenda usually includes the financial reports, unless there’s a money-related crisis or if this is the meeting where the next year’s budget is being considered.
- The next and largest part of the agenda is a full hour or so set aside for the main topic of the day. In this case, it’s consideration of that million-dollar bequest. The staff would have already sent the board a two-page memo on the issue, and now there’s a considered and nuanced conversation about the pros and cons of the various ways to react to the bequest. At the hour’s end, there’s a vote on how to respond to the opportunity. And, even if the vote is not unanimous, the dissenting board members agree to support the majority opinion going forward.
- Fifteen minutes are allotted to considering the Executive Director’s report, which also had been mailed in advance. The Executive Director briefly calls particular attention to two items, and then opens the floor for discussion.
- The Chair reminds all board members of the major decisions they’ve made that day, and what obligations they’d agreed to take on before the next board meeting. He thanks them for their time and contributions, and he thanks the staff for the meeting preparation. The Chair then spends five minutes seeking feedback on the meeting, recording what was positive in one column on the white board, and what could be done better the next time in the other.
- The board meeting adjourns – though once or twice a year, the meeting is followed by dinner, so that the board members can get to know one another on a more relaxed basis.
I would go so far as to say that not only is a good board meeting better than a root canal, but it’s actually a good experience, period.
Not a single suggestion I put forth in this post is original, by the way. These are standard and fairly universally accepted techniques for making board meetings work more effectively. But not many boards function in this way. Board cultures can be strong and stubbornly resistant to change. If board leaders hang onto the notion that they’ve always done things a certain way, and that there’s no point in rocking the boat, then the threshold for making a shift to a more rational and engaging structure is very high.
But do it. It’s hard enough to run a nonprofit, and it’s hard enough being a board member, without having to deal with utterly miserable and ineffective meetings. Board meetings should be effective, efficient, engaging, exciting, and engrossing. Board members should leave meetings charged up and well-fed – not frustrated and fed-up. And as we wade through an extended era of reduced government funding and heightened competition for both donations and volunteer leaders, those organizations that use their boards badly simply won’t survive.
Copyright Alan Cantor 2017. All rights reserved.
Great article, Al. I also just had a root canal for the first time – and many board meetings I’ve endured over the years have been way worse.
Thoughts on this subject for the very small board – the one with part-time staff, or no staff at all – would be helpful. Can the volunteer board chair find ways to make the meeting great without spending endless hours?
All the best!
Good point, Peter. The dynamics surely are different for a small organization (with very few staff) than a larger organization.
There’s no free lunch: being a board chair of a tiny organization takes time. It’s more hands-on, much as the treasurer of a small organization might actually write and sign the checks, as opposed to a larger, more professional organization.
I like the rule that it takes two hours of preparation for every one hour of meeting time. That seems reasonable — and it’s a manageable bit of time to devote (if indeed three or four hours will do the trick). For the board chair to spend three hours or so to put together a 90-minute board meeting is time well spent. Certainly better than dealing with the disaffection and debris of a bad board meeting!
Amen! to each and every point – especially point #3: spend the most time on the main topic!! to benefit from board members’ wisdom and expertise. I’ll share this with all the boards I know – thanks Al!
You, my friend, are absolutely on the right track. Non-profits spend a lot of energy and goodwill capital on getting smart, engaged people on their boards and then, too often in my experience, don’t take full advantage of them. I have a few “bell weather tests” that I use:
1. Is the meeting time split: 70% board members talking/30% staff. If so, good.
2. Do the majority of the board members attend regularly, prepared and ready to dive into meaty subjects?
3. Is the conversation geared towards strategy and policy, not operational matters?
4. Is there ample background material for discussion items and, preferably, two or three key discussion questions associated with each item.
I also tell folks considering joining a non-profit board to view it the same as taking a job. Ask yourself “will I be able to add unique value to this organization?” and “will I learn and grow as part of my experience on this board?” If the answer is yes to both, then by all means join.
A good non-profit board–one that is well run and draws on members highest and best value–is an immensely rewarding experience. Poorly run meetings are demoralizing and sell the organization short.
Thank you, Peter. Good guidelines! Glad you liked the piece — and hope our paths cross before long. (Maybe in a board room?)
Alan, well done , my friend! Your thoughts and suggestions are on point and well articulated, as always. The only comment I might add to yours and others who have responded is that good board meetings should be inspiring. How many times have we and others left those horrible board meetings you describe and commented to others how exhausted we are because we have sat through several hours of a meeting where we feel like we added nothing and little was accomplished. When a board meeting is engaging and meaningful, it is likely to encourage me, as a board member, to tell others how excited, challenged and, yes, inspired I am to be part of such an organization, thus fulfilling one of the key board responsibilities of being an ambassador for the organization.
Thanks, Carolyn. Great comment! You fleshed out a point I could have made more clearly: that excited, engaged board members make great ambassadors. They leave the meeting and talk up the organization. That’s so very important for the organization — and rewarding for the board member!