It’s easy for boards to become “bored.” In many years as a board member, board president, nonprofit staff person and consultant, I’ve discovered that there are lots of ways to keep your board meetings interesting so that board members want to attend and know that their time and talent is valued. Here are my tips for how to run the best meetings you’ve ever had.
There are some simple practices you can master to make meetings go more smoothly. Remember, the more your attendees feel their time and expertise is being respected, the more engaged and invested they will be in the meeting outcomes.
This is a crucial expectation not only for the meeting facilitator who is setting the agenda, but equally important for the attendees. If your meeting guests are reviewing the agenda for the first time as they sit down at the meeting, they are not prepared adequately. It is important to explain during board member or staff recruiting and orientation that preparing for meetings is expected and that everyone at the table will be prepared, as well.
If you’re a board leader, you may be used to everyone waiting to see what you have to say on a topic. It’s great to have trusted experts on the team, but others may hold back on what they are thinking until you have weighed in. To get the most out of a meeting discussion, try to listen more and talk less if you’re facilitating the meeting. After all, no matter the outcome, you will get more buy-in from everyone if the decision is reached as a group.
Getting to know your board members, their interests, discussion styles, and preferences is a crucial when it comes to overall board management. A good board will have a variety of personalities. Some will talk first and think later. Others will think first and talk later. You need to know who you might need to encourage to talk and who you may need to encourage to stop talking! The board or committee chair should meet one-on-one with each member periodically to allow the kinds of conversations that are difficult in a group setting.
When board members answer your questions or make a statement, paraphrase it back to them to make sure you (and the rest of the board) have the same understanding of what they said. I use language such as “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I heard you say that…” This uses “I-statements” – meaning that you accept responsibility for a misinterpretation instead of “You-statements” that can make a person defensive.
Long oral committee reports can drag a meeting down. Committee reports can be simple with bullet points for what the whole board needs to know. At the meeting, board members can ask questions and make comments instead of having to listen to a minute-by-minute account of committee proceedings. Another idea is to add the committee reports to a consent agenda, and put them at the end of the meeting after the important discussions.
One group I knew always started the meeting right on time. When a late member walked in, the group would stop and applaud and then continue. Tardiness stopped. Likewise, in another group, the member who always came late arrived at one meeting to find everyone’s watches at his place. There was laughter, but the point was made, and he started arriving on time. The point of these ideas is simply to set an expectation of timeliness so everyone will be focused during the scheduled timeline.
This part of meeting conduct requires a lot of discipline and a commitment to the agenda items. Get agreement from the group to be able to put items that come up that are not relevant to the discussion in the “parking lot” and discussed at another time. Be sure to revisit the parking lot at the end of the meeting and assess what needs more research, to be added to the next agenda, or delegated as a task.
So, you had a great meeting with lots of productive decisions and discussions. Now what? Meeting minutes don’t just serve to keep a record of the meeting for posterity. They also capture the to-do’s and summarize what was agreed to accomplish before the next meeting. Be sure to send minutes out promptly, and perhaps include a separate or highlighted section of tasks to be completed before the next gathering. It is up to the board or committee chair to check in periodically on progress between meetings.
Enforce an attendance policy so that board members who are often “no shows” are removed from the board. It’s not fair to board members who come to meetings to have all the work fall only on them. Sometimes people need permission to admit that they can no longer fill the role of board member.
You’ve planned the best meeting agenda possible, distributed all the necessary documents, assembled the perfect group of people for your challenges. But planning a great meeting doesn’t stop there! Let’s think about some ways that we can encourage robust discussions, the kind that really get to the essence of the goals you want to achieve.
Ask questions to draw people out and better understand the underlying assumptions of their arguments. Use non-threatening phrases like “Can you tell me more about that?” or “Why do you say that?”… Sometimes views that appear opposing on the surface have more commonality when you can delve into them and reveal their underlying assumptions. Asking questions can help the group come to consensus so everyone fully accepts and understands the decision.
By asking these kinds of questions, you not only get a sense of what motivates your stakeholders, but you can also identify areas that need attention. If your meeting attendees can’t or don’t want to answer some of these questions, it may be a sign that engagement is suffering.
Even the most thorough agenda and most enthusiastic board members can eventually slip into… not the most exciting meetings. If you feel that everyone is trying hard, but the meeting just needs a little bit of a boos, you might want to try some of these methods for energizing board meetings.
When a client succeeds, when the reviews for the last show were stellar, when a staff member went above and beyond, or when the organization has achieved a goal are all reasons to celebrate with the board. Nothing can energize board meetings like success!
A consent agenda organizes standard and non-controversial board action items apart from the rest of the agenda so that they can be approved as a group. This includes agenda items that require board approval, but because they are not controversial, do not require discussion by the board. This may include the minutes of the last meeting, other standard committee reports, the CEO’s report or informational items. One motion, a second, and a vote approves these items quickly.
Discuss the most important things FIRST. Get feedback and discussion when everyone is fresh and ready to get down to business. Not only will this charge up your discussions, it also encourages people to be more punctual because they don’t want to miss the good conversations.
You can meet at a program site or at a restaurant for breakfast or lunch. A change of scene can stimulate new ideas and good discussion, and energize board meetings effortlessly. Changing the time of day from an evening meeting to a breakfast gathering can inject energy into conversations, too.
Most nonprofit board meetings occur in the evening after many members have put in a full day’s work and would normally be eating dinner. Why not combine social time with food and your nonprofit board meeting? One idea is to have one meeting per quarter catered if it’s in the budget. If not, have each member bring a dish to share. While they’re eating, board members have a chance to get to know others that they might not otherwise get to talk to.
Give prizes! Invite board members to prepare to talk for 1-2 minutes as if they’ve been introduced to someone and the person has said, “What does this nonprofit do?” Make it completely voluntary. You may only have 3 or 4 who participate. Have someone from outside your nonprofit serve as the judge. Everyone will gain some great ideas on how to “introduce” your nonprofit to others.
Board education and development can often be difficult to implement on an ongoing basis. There are ways to make it fun though including tapping into the expertise of board members to put together a presentation of relevant topics of importance. If your nonprofit organization has the budget, consider bringing in outside speakers who have the skills to help your board such as those dealing with fundraising or evaluations.
This is the simplest way to energize board meetings. If there is no reason to have a meeting, don’t have one! If you find that happens often, there needs to be a serious discussion of governance and the work that the board should be doing.
Research shows that if you can get everyone at a meeting to talk just a little at the beginning, it is more likely that they will speak up at other times in the meeting. Ask an interesting question for every board member to answer. An example: How were you an ambassador for our nonprofit this month?
At a couple of meetings every year, give every board two sticky notes. At the end of the meeting, ask board members give you a “+” (what goes well) and a “-“ (what needs improvement) about board meetings. On their way out at the end of the meeting, they put the comments on poster paper at the door. You’ll get great feedback on meetings.
There are many aspects to improving your meetings. Planning and providing documents ahead of time is crucial. Setting up an efficient agenda is also incredibly important. Then, there is conducting the meeting itself. If any one part of meeting preparation is lacking, it can affect the quality of the meeting. By following all the helpful tips in this article, you can make sure you don’t miss any important points.
Use this free ebook with your team to start planning your next virtual meeting. While they may be similar to traditional meetings, there are definitely some special considerations to keep in mind when hosting virtual meetings. Feel free to share this pdf with anyone you know who wants to improve remote meetings!
Interested in how to make your board of directors more productive through the effective use of technology? Boardable is a software platform that centralizes all communication between you and your board. Find the best meeting times, securely store all of your documents, archive discussion threads and more—all in one place. Click below to schedule a demo with a member of our Boardable team.