[This article was co-published on October 4, 2017, by the Maine Association of Nonprofits]
When I was a 27-year-old, freshly promoted, and utterly under-qualified executive director (back in 1985 we didn’t think to call ourselves “CEO” or “President”), I met with a man named Richard who had raised tens of millions of dollars in his nonprofit career. My goal in setting up the meeting was to pick Richard’s brain about nonprofit management in general, and fundraising in particular.
Richard must have been 45 at the time, which seemed venerable to me then. After a few minutes of getting to know one another, Richard, who was as friendly and welcoming as he was knowledgeable, asked me how often the board of my organization met. “Monthly!” I responded, thinking it was a pretty obvious and logical answer.
Richard scowled – well, no, he didn’t scowl, he was too polite for that, but he grimaced just enough to make his disagreement known. “I think that’s a problem,” he said. “Meet less. Do more!”
I think of Richard – and how right he was – nearly every week.
For example, I recently was talking with a nonprofit CEO, and I asked her what the expectations were for members of her board. She started by calling the roll on all the meetings board members were expected to attend. There was the monthly board meeting. And board members needed to serve on at least two committees, each of which also met monthly.
My head hurt thinking about the time commitment required from volunteer board members simply to attend these meetings. And, of course, I knew that each meeting required staff to be in attendance, to prepare the agenda and reports, to take minutes, and to follow up. And then the next month, it all happens again – to what end?
This leads me my First Law of Volunteer Involvement: “If a nonprofit organization requires board members to devote countless hours to unexciting and unproductive board and committee meetings, they will find themselves with a board that is itself unexciting and unproductive.” I’ve written recently about how to run an effective, efficient, and productive board meeting. Good meeting management is indeed critical for engaging board members and for moving an organization forward. But not only do we have to avoid having bad meetings. We also have to avoid having too many meetings.
Most boards that meet monthly really don’t need to. Yes, if it’s a purely volunteer organization – a small town historical society, say – and all the work is actually carried out by board members, then monthly meetings make sense. But if there’s a professional staff in place, and the board is truly providing governance, and not managing the organization, then holding quarterly or every-other-month board meetings should not only be adequate, but vastly better than monthly meetings.
The reason to reduce the number of meetings is so that board members have the time to do what’s actually important. A board member’s purpose is not to attend meetings, though, of course, that’s a big part of what she or he does. No: A board member’s role is to represent the charitable organization in the community; to identify, cultivate, and thank financial supporters; to give generously to the organization; to ensure that the organization is ethically and legally operated; to see that funds are used well, and in support of the mission; and to hire, monitor, support, evaluate, and, when necessary, to replace the CEO.
None of this requires monthly board meetings and monthly committee meetings. And having too many meetings actually keeps board members from being truly effective.
That’s because of what I’ll call my Second Law of Volunteer Involvement: “If n is the number of hours a nonprofit can reasonably expect a board member to devote to its cause each month, the organization cannot expect that board member to dedicate 2n or 3n hours, except in times of crisis or transition, or unless it is actively promoting board member burn-out, frustration, and/or premature resignations.”
Let’s play this out. You are delighted that Craig Connected has joined your board. He’s smart, thoughtful, well-regarded, and he knows everyone. He’s a major donor, and he’s friends with other potential major donors. Craig is also a busy guy: he runs his own business, travels a lot, and values his time with children and grandkids. You want Craig to arrange lunches to introduce friends to the organization, to throw a friend-raising house party, to make an introductory phone call to an old classmate of his who is the president of a private foundation. But Craig is already devoting six or eight hours a month to the organization simply going to board and committee meetings – maybe more, including the prep and travel time. There’s no more time in Craig’s schedule. He’s not going to put your organization ahead of his business or his grandchildren. You’re using up his available volunteer hours, and not well.
If your organization shifted to a quarterly board and committee meeting schedule, then Craig would find himself with a few dozen extra hours a year to do things for you that are actually important and helpful. He’d make connections for the organization, raise lots of money, and, in the process, feel more satisfied with his involvement because he’d be accomplishing something beyond sitting in meetings.
My sense is that at most organizations the rite of monthly board meetings dates back decades to a time when the organization might have been much smaller, less well staffed, and more dependent on operational support from board members. Monthly meetings also draw from a different cultural time, before 24/7 wireless connectivity, when people weren’t on call at all hours, and when working parents weren’t so harried patching together childcare coverage. People are really busy today, and the kind of people you want on your board are especially busy. So it’s incumbent upon nonprofit leaders to minimize the frequency of meetings, and instead to ask board members to take on the activities that really matter for moving their organizations forward.
So how will you use your board members’ time? That’s your call. But I know what my old friend Richard would say – and, from my point of view, he’d be right.
Copyright Alan Cantor 2017. All rights reserved.
Thanks, Al. It’s still not an easy transistion for a small, leanly staffed organization, reducing the operating role, cutting back on meeting time and being productuve between meetings. With minimal staff, we created an operations committee that functions quite smoothly behind the scenes, simply reporting updates to the board, usually via consent agenda. That way the board can focus primarily on fundraising, finance and governance. In the old days, I used to hear that it’s easy to be board chair – you just run the meetings, but in this more productive model, it’s the follow-up between meetings that takes time and leadership; recruiting committee chairs who get it and are self driven, is key!
I consulted with a Richard in the beginning of my advancement career too, maybe the same one. Good advisors are priceless! Thanks for being one.
Thanks, Meredith — Great input! This is absolutely not a one-size-fits-all situation. The best thing is to have an honest conversation and analysis about what would work best for your organization. Sounds as though you’ve hit on a good solution that works for you. And thanks for your kind words!
Al, your article should be required reading for all non-profit organizations which have a staff who handle daily functions. I wish I could have read it when I was still an E.D., but I’m happy to have it now as a board member.
Another point that occurs to me in hindsight is that having repetitive board meetings where “A-type” personalities are minimally engaged can also lead to situations where they find fault where there are no problems, and want to fix things that are not broken, just so that they feel their time is worthwhile.
Thanks, Laura — and your point about high-powered board members without enough real work to do is so important!