Whether as nonprofit board members or executive staff, we have all sat in a soul-sucking board meeting at some point. These meetings often start at 6:00 PM and drag on for several hours, causing participants to get fidgety, irritated, and anxious to just leave.
The boards of most charities have regular rituals or routines that promote either unproductive meetings or truly effective ones. In fact, organizations must work to build rituals that create engaging and effective meetings, and I outline several of the ingredients of a kick-ass board meeting below:
- Use Generative questions. Begin every meeting with a generative question. Generative questions typically have no “right” or “wrong” answer but instead open the door to further inquiry and stimulate creative thinking. Here are a few examples of good generative questions:
- What has been your major insight as a board member?
- What one issue warrants our immediate attention going forward?
- How do we build a better organization?
- What do I want my legacy as a board member to be?
It’s also important to have two ground rules to ensure the generative question doesn’t take up a third of your meeting. First, ask each board member to take no more than 30 seconds to answer the question (and time them using a screen clock). Second, be clear that participants are answering a generative question to stimulate thought but aren’t discussing the answers. [Total time – 8 minutes]
2. Build community. Every meeting is an opportunity for members to build community among themselves. Facilitate community building by always having food and celebrating (or commemorating) board member’s milestones. Sing happy birthday, express genuine condolences, sing the happy anniversary song from The Flintstones. While I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, there’s a reason that churches ask everyone stand up and sing – – – the act of singing together builds community even when we’re off-key. While you likely want to serve food before the meeting, celebrating milestones and singing is a great intermission at the midpoint of your agenda. [Total time spent – 5 minutes]
3. Share the work of your organization through a client presentation. Staff have a front row seat and backstage pass to the life-changing work of the organization, and you can give board members this same opportunity by asking a successful former client to share their story with the board. If the client is okay with a public photo, it’s also a great social media opportunity for the organization (though always get permission first). [Total time spent – 8 minutes]
4. Use a consent agenda. Your board undoubtedly has routine activities at meetings, such as approving minutes, reviewing reports, approving bank resolutions, etc. A consent agenda enables the board to bundle these routine items into one agenda item that is approved as a group instead of individually. [Total time saved – approximately 15 minutes].
5. Eliminate the Executive Director’s Report. Too many boards substitute an executive director’s operational report for the heart of the meeting. Some CEOs spend an entire day (or more) drafting a multi-page executive director report that they essentially read to the board. [Time saved – approximately 30 minutes]. Instead use item #6 below.
6. Distribute a Dashboard. A dashboard is a simple one-page tool that gives the entire board a quick snapshot of the organization’s programmatic, financial, and operational health. Give board members the opportunity to ask any questions about the dashboard. [Total time saved – approximately 30 minutes]
7. Expect board members to prepare for the meeting. It’s obvious if a large portion of board members haven’t read the meeting materials. You can tell by the questions they ask (or sometimes by their complete silence while flipping through pages). When this occurs, a member of your Governance Committee needs to say “I did my homework, and I feel betrayed when people show up unprepared”. They shouldn’t call out individuals in the meeting, but the Governance Committee needs to manage the expectation that everyone prepares for the meeting.
8. Assign a deep dive on one topic. Each meeting should focus on a specific area of governance by allotting 30 – 45 minutes for discussion and action by the board. If an organization has six meetings a year, you might consider the following areas of focus (this example assumes that the fiscal year ends December 31):
- January: Discuss fundraising strategy for the year
- March: Review and discuss program outcomes from the prior year.
- May: Review the strategic plan goals and discuss necessary updates.
- July: Discuss budget priorities for the next fiscal year. This will enable the Finance Committee and executive staff to build a budget that addresses these priorities.
- September: Discuss the nominations process and facilitate a board brainstorm on the board skills needed next year (and a few candidates who might meet those needs).
- November: Planning for the next fiscal year (approve the budget, elect officers, appoint new board members, set a meeting schedule, etc).
Of course, each meeting will include other business, but dedicating 30% to 50% of the meeting to one topic enables the board to do a strategic “deep dive”.
9. Set a 90-minute limit. The reason plays and symphonies almost always have an intermission is because most of us have an attention span of 55 – 90 minutes. If your board holds its meetings after work, the average attention span may actually be a bit shorter since people are tired (and hungry if you aren’t serving food). This is one more good reason to (a) serve food and (b) create an intermission by celebrating board member milestones. But, please, for all that is good and holy in this world, do not allow meetings to last longer than 90-minutes. Give your board members the opportunity to get home early enough to kiss their spouses and children goodnight.