Holding Board Meetings That Make a Difference

Holding Board Meetings That Make a Difference

Volunteer board members are pandemic-fatigued, so meetings must be substantive, compelling, and well-planned.

In my small consulting firm, we work almost exclusively with nonprofit organizations and every client—no matter the size or mission—has a board of directors. We get front row seats for the governance process, with the opportunity to see how board engagement makes a difference, or doesn’t, to our clients.

As consultants, we also experience the undertow created by board meetings, as busy executive directors and leadership teams finesse logistics and scurry to prepare board materials.

Timed agendas, updated financial statements, committee reports, and other documents not only provide board members with detailed information about the organization’s current performance, but also provide a paper trail of information needed for audits, tax returns, and annual reports. Often we see staff laboring over extensive and beautifully crafted reports, highlighting recent news and activities, and calling the board’s attention to emerging trends and strategic questions. Is all this effort worth it? Is this a good use of staff time? The answer is, it depends.

At their best, boards bring vision and thought partnership, life and work skills and knowledge, important community connections, and careful oversight to the work of nonprofit organizations. But all too often, board members are only tangentially engaged, and are not given meaningful work to do as volunteers.

The pandemic’s interruption of in-person board meetings has resulted in more boards continuing to use virtual platforms for regular meetings. When the shutdowns were in place, and the pandemic was at its most disruptive, many boards “met” more frequently and with more urgency, to help nonprofits navigate change.

Now that we are returning to in-person meetings and hybrid arrangements, it’s important both for board members and leadership teams to ensure that board engagement stays high. Strategies for engagement are especially important because of the general ennui and fatigue of society as we emerge from our isolation. Meetings need to matter. What’s a nonprofit to do?

Be sure there is a compelling reason to meet

Your board may meet more frequently than is actually needed. Consider the cadence of board meetings, develop a multi-meeting plan for agendas, and be sure that every single meeting is absolutely needed, and can be substantive. It’s reasonable for a board member to ask whether it was essential for them to have been in a specific place at a specific time, if the main purpose was to receive information that could have been distributed otherwise.

Spend time crafting discussion questions that merit the board’s attention

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Think of board meetings as a place to ask strategic questions and gather insight from people who are coming from many different disciplines and life circumstances. Crafting questions that will generate lively and helpful discussion is as important—or more important—as any presentation that’s going to happen at a board meeting.

Make sure everyone has the opportunity to contribute

Make sure that board meetings are facilitated and that everyone is asked to contribute. Don’t let the loudest voices in the room dominate, and make room for contrarians and skeptics.

Give board members adequate time to read advance materials

Too often, a 50- or 100-page board docket lands with a thud just a day or two before a meeting. Make sure board members will have time to read and think about the materials they receive.

Provide a “mission moment” or other point of inspiration about the work

Board members volunteer to make a difference in the causes they care about. Make sure every meeting devotes some time to storytelling, a speaker, or other agenda element that is inspiring and motivating.

Survey members after every meeting for feedback and continuous improvement

A simple survey will tell a board chair and executive director how they are doing in their efforts to create important, meaningful meetings. Ask board members what went well and what didn’t, and whether a meeting was worthwhile. Quieter members will also appreciate the opportunity to provide written feedback on key questions, if they did not speak up at meetings.

All too often, we hear staff leaders groan about their boards of directors, instead of working to build a board that is an inspirational and dynamic partner in the work. If you’re among the complainers, now is a good time to make change. It will take time, but the rewards are more than worth it. A dynamic board is a superpower. Build one and see for yourself.